19 July 2010

The Water Crisis - An SOS to the World

For my undergraduate Politics of the Middle East class, I wrote a paper on the potential for 'water wars' in the Jordanian River basin. With 97% of the earth's water supply unusable for domestic and agriculture purposes due to being saltwater, we are placing increasing demands on the remaining 3% (not all of which is accessible, some being located in ice caps and deep aquifers). In the future, water has the potential to become a weapon. States militarize in response to perceived threats to their security. Lack of access to water may well become one of the top security threats of the future if something is not done – and soon.

I am not as interested in the political implications of such a future as I am in what can be done to improve the situation now. By 2050, as many as a third of the Earth’s population may lack a clean source of water. Today, 1.1 billion, (one in eight) people lack access to safe water. Those who lack clean water are disproportionately located in developing countries, primarily in South America and Africa. Because the water scarcity crisis is ‘hidden’ away from the view of the West, it has remained a problem of which most people remain blissfully ignorant.

Unfortunately for those living in the affected areas, they do not have the option of remaining unaware of the crisis. While their husbands work to support the family, women are forced to walk hours (3-4 in each direction on average) to the nearest source of water, which may or may not be sanitary, in order to have enough for the household. Each person needs about 1.1 gallons of water a day for cooking and drinking. But to stay clean and healthy, 5-10 additional gallons per person are needed. The average woman is able to carry about 12 gallons of water at one time. With water collection taking up so much time for such little reward, it is no wonder then that water is often reserved for vital activities such as cooking as opposed to drinking and sanitation.

In a large number of cases, the water that communities do have access to is not safe. It must be boiled and purified before becoming suitable for consumption. Many communities do not have the money or resources to purchase such purification systems and so are forced to make do with the water that they have. Lack of education about the dangers of unpurified water and the benefits of proper hygiene also contributes to the problem. The end result is that diarrheal diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery -- diseases largely eradicated and thus forgotten about in the West -- kill up to 4,000 children every day. 2.2 million people in developing countries die each year from poor hygiene, inadequate sanitation, and lack of access to clean water.   

The result of water scarcity is that women are unable to seek outside unemployment that could help them to raise the quality of life for their families. Water scarcity means that thousands of children die every single day from preventable conditions such as diarrhea and dehydration. Those who do survive must forego educational opportunities to assist their mothers in collecting water. Education is widely recognized as the key to development; how can a community possibly hope to improve life for its members if its children are unable to be educated? This is not simply a matter of parents choosing not to send their children a school because they need extra hands. No, this is a matter of life or death: sending a child to school means one less container of water that is brought back to the household and subsequently possibly one less meal cooked or person’s thirst quenched.

For me, this is a crisis that is not about the security of states. It is about the welfare of the individual. It is about the women who are forced to remain uneducated in order to gather enough water for their families. It is about the thousands of children who die of dehydration and sanitation-related illnesses every single day. It is about my friend Ashleigh, who is serving with the Peace Corps in Mali and who is already witnessing first-hand the effects of water scarcity on the people. And it is about my cousin Kenneth who will soon move to rural Burkina Faso with his wife, where access to clean water will undoubtedly be a problem that he will encounter. For those who are unaware, Mali and Burkina Faso are amongst the poorest countries in the world. In Mali, 27% of the population has access to clean water. The situation is little better in Burkina, where 50% of the population has access to clean water and just 15% to sanitation.

I one day hope to work directly to combat water scarcity and the global health issues created by it in the communities most affected by it. At the moment, this ability lies in the future as I attend graduate school and develop the skills necessary to actively influence positive changes. However, this does not mean that something cannot be done about the situation right now. On August 28, 2010, I will be running the Patrick Henry Half Marathon (13.1 miles) in Ashland, Virginia. In addition to fulfilling a personal goal, I hope to raise money to support one of the leading NGOs fighting water scarcity WaterAid. WaterAid (WaterAid) currently operates programs in 26 countries dedicated to improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation. Instead of merely ‘dumping’ aid money on governments (most of which is lost through corruption and mismanagement), WaterAid works in local communities to improve conditions by using sustainable, low-cost technologies and education. I am asking for your support in whatever way you can give it. If you feel inclined to donate, you can do so through the following website: http://www.firstgiving.com/rebeccakaisler or by contacting me directly. Any donation at all is appreciated, but so will supporting me in my run on August 28th.

(And no, the intention of writing this note was not to ask for money. It was to raise awareness and ask for your support, be it financial or emotional. I entertain no delusions that I will be able to raise a significant sum of money before August 28th, especially in these hard economic times. Much more achievable is my goal of educating others about the water scarcity crisis that is occurring. This is a cause about which I am deeply passionate and will most likely be conducting research on for my graduate dissertation at King’s College London next year. While I do not expect everyone to change their habits or become involved in this issue simply because of the information that I have presented here, I do hope that at least one person will investigate the subject further. Change results from small steps rather than large leaps.)

For more information on the water crisis, please see the following sites:

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