Perhaps it’s no accident that water is the single symbol shared by every world religion. Without water, there is no life.
Each of us has one hundred times as many water molecules in our bodies than the sum of all other molecules combined. Today is World Water Day, a good day to reflect on how this symbol that blesses, sanctifies, and purifies in our rituals, but too often, does not do the same in daily life.
We’ve told Cristian’s story before, but it bears repeating. This 9-year-old was diagnosed with a Neglected Tropical Disease. NTDs are a group of infections that spread through unsafe water, so they tend to attack the poorest communities around the world. In fact, 1.4 billion people are sickened and 500 million of them are children.
Cristian’s particular NTD caused an eye infection, treatable with a steady routine of hand and face washing. But this was a luxury for Cristian — his family lives in the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, where water is a gateway to disease. Cristian suffered for two years as his eye infection grew into a tumor that covered part of his face. When he was 11 years old, he died of complications from a perfectly preventable and treatable disease because his family didn’t have access to clean water.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve known that clean water and sanitation are fundamental to disease prevention, as well as treatment and containment, in homes, hospitals, health care facilities, and schools around the world. But prevention is the key. As we continue to rely on antibiotics to cure preventable infections, we’re all heading down a new road that is leading us backward to a world before antibiotics. Think about that for a moment. Drug resistance knows no borders.
Many of the common antibiotics we’ve all come to rely on are no longer effective and few new ones are in development. In 1990, at least 18 large pharmaceutical companies were actively developing antibiotics. Today, there are four. Drug resistance will cause longer and more costly illnesses, more doctors visits, the need for stronger and more expensive drugs, and more deaths.
But this is also true: Every infection prevented is one that needs no treatment. Prioritizing access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene — called WASH — is the best way to safeguard health security for all. Providing WASH doesn’t require our faith-based organizations to change missions or require science to conquer new frontiers. We’ve got a solvable problem here.
Between 1990 and 2012, 2.3 billion people gained access to better water (though sanitation continues to lag behind). What’s missing isn’t technology, it’s priority. It’s easy to take our water for granted.
Let’s instead take inspiration from a Sunday school in Kansas where 28 kids challenged their congregation to drop a nickel in a water bottle every time they used water. They raised the money for a school in northern Kenya in need of water and sanitation.
Because these 28 students’ wanted to make a difference, now 261 students in Kenya no longer have to walk 3 kilometers every day to fetch water from a polluted stream. They no longer have to use dirty pit latrines with no clean water to wash their hands. They now have roof gutters that capture and filter rainwater, and separate latrines for boys and girls. Their new understanding of the impact of water on health has filtered into the village.
Working with the U.S. non-profit, H2O for Life, a half million committed American students like these kids in Kansas have learned about the global water crisis, their own water footprint (the U.S. daily consumes more water than any other country) and have done something about it. In 10 years, 900 schools in 21 countries have gained water and sanitation and their 250,000 students have healthier lives and better futures.
Faith-based organizations are perfectly positioned to prioritize WASH because they run health clinics, hospitals, and schools all over the world, With WASH, they will help replace illness and death with education, offer better health, pave a path out of poverty to greater productivity, and provide new economic opportunities that ultimately benefit the global economy.
Yes, we can find all that in a glass of water.
No matter our religion or creed, we can all agree that every person deserves a clean glass of water. Human existence is about much more than water, but it can never be about less. Together we can transform water from the burden that it is into the source of health and life it is meant to be.
When you think about it, perhaps World Water Day isn’t just one day, but every day.