When we gaze at the beautiful blue-green orb we call home from outer-space, what we mostly see is water. Approximately 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, but only 3% of it is fresh water ÛÒ of that precious 3%, 2% is frozen in polar ice caps, leaving just 1% to satisfy all the needs of 6 billion people around the globe.2 Sadly, we have not yet assured that everyone has their most basic needs met. Currently, nearly 1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 billion lack adequate sanitation ÛÒ which causes the unnecessary deaths of more than 4,000 people every day, mostly children under the age of five.3
Access to clean water is desirable for obvious reasons ÛÒ improved health, decreased disease, and it tastes better than swamp water ÛÒ but there are a multitude of other reasons why access to clean water, and basic sanitation, is critical for a healthy global society.
While it is easy for us to step out of our hot showers and think nothing about the global water crisis, countless individuals and organizations around the globe are dedicated to providing water to the poorest people of the world. Like many non-profit water organizations, Freshwater Project Malawi was founded by one courageous person who was determined to make a difference. In this case, the driving force was a humble fireman turned waterman by the name of Charles Banda, a local Malawian who grew up without water anywhere near his home. He founded Freshwater Project in 1995 and has dedicated his life to providing water to the people of his country through community involvement and empowerment.
In the mid-90s Banda preached in the villages on Sundays, but when he had to cancel several services because of horrific outbreaks of cholera, he knew that he had to take action. More than 800 wells and 5,000 pit latrines later, he is considered a local hero in the Blantyre rural region of Malawi. If it were up to Banda to set the global agenda, water would be a top priority when addressing all of the issues in the MDGs.
In the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 2000, the UN established a set of goals called the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.4 The MDGs are a set of 8 goals aimed at reducing poverty and the suffering it causes in poor, developing nations by the year 2015. While most Americans are relatively unfamiliar with the acronym because it is rarely covered in our news outlets, the MDGs make the headlines on a daily basis in Africa and Asia where there is a dire need to improve basic living conditions for the billion plus people living on less than a U.S. dollar a day (the global definition of poverty) ÛÒ and in many cases, on no income at all.
Water and The MDGs
Water plays an integral part in all of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) highlighted below:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Without water there are no crops. To alleviate hunger, people must first have access to ample supplies of water in order to grow crops year round for food security. Additionally, diarrheal diseases, common in people who are forced to drink contaminated water, diminish the nutritional benefits of the food they actually eat. According to UNICEF, malnourishment affects a child’s ability to learn and actively participate in school. Food deprivation provides a daily stress on children and stunts both their emotional and physical development.6
“When people have access to an abundant source of water, at least they can grow crops,” says Freshwater Project Director, Charles Banda. In regions like southeastern Africa where there actually is ground water available but access to it is limited because of poverty, water projects have a multiple effect by not only providing clean water, but reducing hunger and poverty, Banda explains.
According to reports by Freshwater Project, in the villages where they are able to build solar or wind-powered water tanks that store enough water to grow three crops of corn and other vegetables each year, hunger and famine become virtually non-existent. The surplus crops can be sold at local markets thus decreasing poverty in the community as well.
2. Achieve universal primary education
Women and young girls generally bear the responsibility of hauling water from distant wells and streams. When girls are forced to spend several hours each day hauling water, they don’t have time to attend school or do their homework. In addition, if there are no latrines to give them privacy, when girls reach puberty they will often stay home from school when they menstruate, or drop out all together. Dropping out of school not only decreases their chances of getting a decent paying job, but it often contributes to an increase in the number of children they have. According to the UN World Fertility Report, adolescent birthrates in sub-Saharan Africa are more than 100 births annually per 1000 young women ages 15-19. In the US the average rate is closer to 35 per 1000.7
Freshwater Project reported that school drop out rates of adolescent girls living in the Chileka region of Malawi dropped from 40% to 2% after the organization’s first decade of providing water and sanitation interventions.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
In many cultures, water is a woman’s responsibility. If women have to spend the bulk of their time and energy hauling water they have little time for anything else such as furthering their education or getting training for a better job. Having a well nearby has an additional benefit to women. Throughout poor nations, incidences of rape are often highest late at night or early in the morning as women make their way to a distant source of water. As they walk home in the dark with 40 pounds of water on their heads they are particularly vulnerable.
Banda values effective policies that protect the rights of women. However, he sees access to water close to the home as a more powerful and immediate preventive measure against rape and sexual harassment of women.
4. Reduce child mortality
More children die from diarrhea caused by drinking filthy, contaminated water than any other causes of death ÛÒ including HIV/AIDS and the violence of war. According to UNICEF, about 4 billion cases of diarrhea per year cause 1.8 million deaths, over 90% of them, or 1.6 million, among children under the age of five.8
After Freshwater Project installed hundreds of wells and thousands of latrines and the majority of people in the region had access to clean water and sanitation the rate of waterborne diseases decreased. The percentage of patients who entered the Chileka Health Center with waterborne diseases dropped from 70% to 6%.9
5. Improve maternal health
Mothers who drink contaminated water are frequently malnourished and weak due to diarrhea and parasitic diseases; women who have easy access to clean water are healthier, and are able to use improved hygiene methods that reduce the chances of post-natal infections. According to a report by the World Health Organization, clean water and other environmental factors are of great importance to the health of pregnant mothers and their newborn children.10
When determining the location of a borehole well, Freshwater Project Malawi carefully considers the proximity to the home of the village mid-wife or Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA), so that the TBA has easy access to clean water when helping a woman deliver a baby and recover from giving birth.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
While anti-retroviral drugs are useful in keeping HIV-positive patients alive, no amount of medication will help an AIDS patient if they wash down their pills with filthy, contaminated water. They will die of diarrhea even with the best medication. Biological contaminants increase diarrhea and diminish absorption of both the medication and the nutrients in the food they eat.
Access to clean water is also critical to preventing schistosomiasis, a chronic and debilitating waterborne disease common in Africa. A report published in the Lancet by JÌ_rg Utzinger Ph.D., et al, on control of the disease lists provision of clean water and sanitation ÛÏas the fundamental basis for schistosomiasis control.”11
The risk of exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitoes is also increased when women and children have to get water from muddy, low-lying swamps. Banda notes that exposure to malaria is decreased when women have access to a borehole pump near their home.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
Trees and forests are integral to the sustainability of the environment and the regeneration of aquifers. However, the FAO reported in the 2005 Global Forest Resource Assessment that, “DeforestationÛ_is continuing at an alarmingly high rate.”12 Each year approximately 13 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost due to deforestation, according to the report.
If people are forced to boil water to make it drinkable, they often have no choice but to cut down trees so that they can build a fire. As millions of trees get cut down every year to boil water the result is deforestation of the poorest regions of the world. Storm run-off from barren, deforested land is laden with bio-waste that ends up in the surface water in ponds and streams where people draw their water if they don’t have a well. This increases the spread of waterborne diseases. If people had access to safe water, they wouldn’t be forced to burn as many trees.
Freshwater Project encourages the communities they serve to plant trees around the wells and prevent people from cutting them down so that the groundwater will be replenished.
8. Develop a global partnership for development
For millions of years humans have settled near sources of fresh water ÛÒ rivers, lakes, streams, or near plentiful aquifers ÛÒ without fresh water, the human race cannot exist. Pollution of freshwater resources is a problem not just in poor nations, but in all areas of the world. It seems dubious to claim that there is ‘development’ if the result of building a factory or cultivating commercial agriculture is contamination of the waterways.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the UNEP Global Environment Outlook states that rapid population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and the drive for food security are putting pressures on water resources, both in terms of quantity and quality. Domestic wastewater, industrial effluents, and agrochemicals are polluting both freshwater and coastal resources, causing health hazards, eutrophication, and stress on aquatic and marine ecosystems.
“How can there be ‘development’ if people don’t have clean water?” Banda adds.
Achieving the Millennium Development Goals will not only save lives, but will serve to improve the lifestyle of millions of people by making them healthier, better educated, more empowered and more prosperous. One way we can keep the momentum going on the MDGs is to make access to clean water and improved sanitation a top priority for all people. According to Water Advocates, if everyone had access to clean water and sanitation, we would automatically progress by at least 30% on all of the MDGs.
“Water is life,Û says Freshwater Project founder, Charles Banda, ÛÏI would do anything to give my people clean water.”
– Written by Amy Hart, Filmmaker, “Water First: Reaching the MDGs” (WaterFirstFilm.org)
Actions you can Take:
1. Sponsor a well:
There are hundreds of wonderful organizations that provide wells in developing nations ÛÒ please support one or more of them. If you would like to donate to Freshwater Project Malawi please see the website of their US partner, www.PureWaterFortheWorld.org
2. Encourage your elected officials to support international water projects:
In the US see the www.OneCampaign.org for information on policies to support clean water for all. Hats off to Matt Damon for leading the way on the One Campaign on global water issues. For more info on water policies and regular updates on a plethora of water issues please sign up for the mailing list at www.WaterAdvocates.org
3. Host a Screening of the award-winning film, WATER FIRST:
Water First: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals is a documentary film directed by Amy Hart that clearly conveys the need for clean water and sanitation in achieving all of the MDGs. Beautifully shot in the sub-Saharan country of Malawi, in southeastern Africa, the film features a genuine hero named Charles Banda who has devoted his life to providing clean water to the people of his country. The DVD includes a 28-minute and a 45-minute version ÛÒ both serve to educate the audience about the critical importance of clean water in achieving all of the MDGs. Please see www.WaterFirstFilm.org or go directly to http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/wfirst.html or call Bullfrog Films at 800-543-3764 to place an order for your academic institution, library or organization.
New York based filmmaker/photographer, Amy Hart is the producer/director of WATER FIRST: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals distributed by Bullfrog Films. (www.WaterFirstFilm.org) The final version of the film premiered at the Environmental Film Festival in DC and has been shown at international festivals and conferences including UNEP/UNESCO Conference-Music for a Green Planet in Geneva, The World’s Fair in Spain, Global Peace Film Fest, UN Environmental Programme Award Film Fest in Istanbul, Voices From the Water Film Fest, and has won a number of awards including a jury award at the World Water Forum in Mexico City and a Fulbright Fellowship Award to take the film to Greece for the EcoFilm Fest. Hart has won an Emmy nomination, 5 Telly Awards and a Gold Award from the USDLA. Hart has directed more than 100 broadcast hours on public health issues and is the founding director of Public Health Productions at The New York Academy of Medicine (www.nyam.org/services/php). Hart is also a professor at New York University where she teaches Public Health Through Film and Fiction.
All photos included in this article were taken in Malawi by Amy Hart å©Hart Productions 2006. All rights reserved.
1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Story of the Ancient Mariner” published in 1798
2. US Geologic Survey ÛÒ http://ga.water.usgs.gov
3. UNICEF.org ÛÒ http://www.unicef.org/wash/index.html
4. UN ÛÒ http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals
5. FAO UN: “1.02 Billion people hungry” June 19, 2009. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/20568/icode/
7. Source: UN World Fertility Patterns 2007
8. UNICEF WASH (Water Sanitation Hygiene) report: http://www.unicef.org/wash/index_wes_related.html
9. Chileka Health Center report of waterborne illnesses 2006, Chileka, Malawi.
10. A. Pruss-Ustun and C. Corvalan, WHO Report ÛÏPreventing Disease through Healthy EnvironmentsÛ 2006 ISBN 92 4 159382 2
11. JÌ_rg Utzinger PhD, et al, “Sustainable schistosomiasis control—the way forward” The Lancet, Vol 362, Issue 9399, 12/6/03
12. UNFAO 2005 Global Forest Resource Assessment. Summary findings at http://www.greenfacts.org/en/forests/