Better education may improve water

Experts call for additional education in order to keep sources of clean water.

BY MONICA OLIVAS | WASHINGTON, DC | December 11, 2009


Mission team member Ken Wood and Ghanaian children play in the water around a new well dug in their village with the support of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in York, Pa.
Credit: UMNS/Brian Wood

Most Americans don’t give a second thought to buying a bottle of water. It’s sold in vending machines, at fast food restaurants and by the case in nearly every store. And if you don’t want bottled water, filling your glass with water straight from the tap is perfectly safe. But, drinkable water is a luxury for more than 884 million other people in the world.

It is estimated that 6,000 people die each day from diseases associated with drinking contaminated or unclean water. Many of the poorest areas of Africa and India lack drinkable water and their children make up the majority of the sick and deceased.

Clean water is essential to good health. Many faith-based groups including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Committee on Relief and Week of Compassion of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), are working to provide everyone in Africa this most basic need.

“Our goal is for everyone in Africa to have access to clean water; and when water is seen as a necessity, and not the luxury it is now,” said Rev. Sandra Gourdet, Area Executive for Africa for the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Gourdet says water should be seen as a necessity because surprisingly, many people in rural African villages don’t realize just how important it is. And when they don’t realize how important it is, existing water wells are not cared for and sometimes abandoned.

“They need to know why clean water is important in the first place, the health aspects of clean water, the ownership of clean water. We have to make sure the community is on board with all the aspects of getting clean water,” says Gourdet.

Recently, experts on the subject gathered in Washington at the Atlantic Water Summit. Representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, Water for People and WaterAid America discussed getting everyone in the world access to clean water and sanitation.

In the United States, water issues are often centered on water availability and usage. Surprisingly, almost half of the water drawn in the country is not used for irrigation or drinking, but for thermo-electric power. Circle of Blue, a Website devoted to water news, says competition for water in the country has been increasing since 2008.

Robert Wilkinson, Ph.D., Director of the Water Policy Program at University of California, Santa Barbara, says the issue can be addressed in three major points: improved efficiency, recycle and improved ground water management.

Also, educating the public on the issue of water is important. Often, knowledge of the issue doesn’t seem to be enough to get the public to conserve until it is clear there is a problem. Experts cited movies like “An Inconvenient Truth” as a good example of how to get the public to care.

Education is key to getting the public to review their water usage practices. One positive example, panelists said, is a proposed plan from Wal-Mart to label its products according to the product’s sustainability. This includes how much water it takes to make the product and get it to the shelves.

But, the reality is that water issues in other parts of the world make the U.S.’s drought issues appear very small. Many third world countries are dealing with water issues that kill people every day.

Week of Compassion works with local churches and communities in Africa to dig wells that will become a permanent source of water for the area. They currently have projects in the Congo, Mozambique, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

In Kenya, the wells are called boreholes and are up to 120 meters deep. Each well costs between $35,000 and $50,000.

The boreholes often take only a few days to dig, but the process of getting the community on board takes much longer. Faith-based organizations first make sure the people are educated on the importance of water and how to care for the well before helping provide more water resources.

“We believe in local ownership, local participation and helping the local economy,” says Gourdet.

Lack of access to clean water is not only a health issue; it is also an economic and social issue.

The societal implications hurt women and girls the most. When a rural community does not have close access to water, the women and girls are the ones who must walk 10 to 12 miles a day to carry water back to their village. This takes hours each day and often means the girls are taken out of school to do this work.

Bringing water to these communities means young women can stay in school and older women can use their time to generate income. Gaudet says on a recent visit to Kenya she saw how women were able to use their time for something better.

“They were able to spend that time doing projects to get some money and send their children to school,” she said.

The Rev. Amy Gopp, Executive Director for Week of Compassion, says the goal is to make residents self-sufficient and help them with long-term development. She stresses that her organization takes its cue from their members living in the area.

“Africans don’t want our charity, they want their dignity. They want the satisfaction of knowing I’ve been helped in one way that puts me in a position to better my family and my community,” said Gaudet.


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