This is a guest post from WaterAid America.
For centuries, water has captivated the hearts and minds of poets, novelists, philosophers and thought leaders. From Langston Hughes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Updike to Lao Tzu, there is no shortage of sayings about water. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
Water is also core to culture worldwide and a favorite subject of proverbs in every corner of the globe. It turns out that they all have a common theme: water is life. One Japanese proverb, for example, says that, “When you’re thirsty, it’s too late to think about digging a well.” In the Philippines, the saying goes: “Don’t empty the water jar until the rain falls.” In West Africa, they say, “Filthy water cannot be washed.”
How, you might wonder, can water be filthy? The answer: one-third of the world’s population lives without a toilet of any kind. Simply put, this means that human waste goes uncontained, often finding its way into the water sources – a nearby river or lake, for example – that people use for drinking, cooking and watering crops. This leads to diarrhea, which starts this vicious cycle over again.
The people hardest hit by this problem are the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. We are not talking about a few small communities; we are talking about 2.5 billion people whose lives could be radically changed by something as simple as clean drinking water and a toilet.
More often than not, poor communities are voiceless and invisible, so it’s tough for them to demand a toilet, even though it is a basic right that their governments should provide. When toilets are nowhere to be found, women and girls report being harassed, attacked by animals and raped when relieving themselves at night or in remote areas. Uncontained human waste creates breeding grounds for the flies that spread trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world, and parasites that can cause things like malnutrition and stunting. Furthermore, it can re-contaminate wells that people trust to be protected when rains are heavy or protective walls breeched.
In the meantime, the burden of spending hours each day walking to collect water, caring for loved ones sick with water-related diseases and missing school or work because their chores take too long falls on the shoulders of millions of women and girls. As if that weren’t enough, simply having their period is often reason enough to keep girls out of school, an effort to avoid the risk of humiliation that comes from attempting to manage menstrual hygiene needs where there is no latrine.
This is where you come in.
Since 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has included safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as a key priority for its international assistance efforts. In many ways, it has done a good job. It has helped millions of people gain access to the water that poets have so eloquently described, and the toilets many of us avoid discussing in poetic company. USAID has helped other governments gain technical expertise in meeting their citizens’ basic human rights to water and sanitation and addressing the health implications of going without. As Americans, we can be proud of this progress.
Hoever, USAID has also failed to consistently prioritize the poorest of the poor – the 2.5 billion people who don’t even have a hole-in-the-ground latrine – with its assistance, despite U.S. law envisioning these funds being spent only in the poorest countries and communities.
Instead, USAID and the State Department have split precious time and taxpayer dollars between countries with high poverty and low access to water and sanitation, and countries that are politically important to the U.S. but have low poverty and high access to water and sanitation. This divided focus results in a situation where the people who truly need support to meet their most basic needs are not getting it because, if you’ll pardon the pun, the well has dried up.
That’s why the U.S. House of Representatives, under the leadership of Congressmen Judge Ted Poe (R-TX) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), has just introduced the bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2013, H.R. 2901.
Without spending any new money or creating new bureaucracy or programs, Water for the World will require USAID to improve its focus on the poorest countries and communities and to be transparent about their analysis, choices and impact. It will help to build expertise around clean water, toilets and hygiene practices in the U.S. and partner governments worldwide, so that the burden and the decisions won’t rest solely on our engineers and international development professionals. It will amplify the good work already underway, by ensuring we are strategic and coordinated, so we can address ill health, lack of education, poor environmental conservation and other challenges that arise from lack of clean water, toilets and hygiene education.
As President John F. Kennedy said, “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes – one for peace and one for science.” Water for the World will help USAID take the next step. It won’t solve the world’s problems single-handedly, but it will have greater impact with the taxpayer dollars already dedicated to this most basic of efforts. It is something we can all agree on.
Join Congressmen Blumenauer and Poe in telling your Representative that politics stop at water. Think of it as an ode to your loo.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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