Faiths For Safe Water: A Pledge For World Water Day 2013

An Indian woman fills drinking water from a public tap, on the eve of World Water Day in Allahabad, India Thursday, March 21,
An Indian woman fills drinking water from a public tap, on the eve of World Water Day in Allahabad, India Thursday, March 21, 2013. The U.N. estimates that more than one in six people worldwide do not have access to 20-50 liters (5-13 gallons) of safe freshwater a day to ensure their basic needs for drinking, cooking and cleaning. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)

We Don't Honor God when 8,000 children die every day from the lack of something we take it for granted every day: a safe glass of water.

It's the world's dirty secret with a staggering impact, starting with children. You may be surprised to learn when you see those heart-wrenching pictures of distended malnourished bellies, 50 percent of all malnutrition in children is due to unsafe water. Eight thousand children under age 14 die every day and it hits the little ones hardest. Under 5, a little life is extinguished every 20 seconds. The lack of safe water and sanitation is the No. 1 killer of children across the globe, yet remains the greatest under-recognized global humanitarian crisis we face.

Eight hundred million people have no safe water and 2.5 billion lack the dignity of basic sanitation. It all translates into more staggering numbers: 80 percent of disease in developing countries, occupying half of the hospital beds, and killing more children than war, or malaria, AIDS and TB combined.

But these are just numbers.

A young American radiologist named Jordan traveled to the outskirts of Honduras' capital city, Tegucigalpa, to help at a clinic providing basic medical care. During the few months she spent there, she particularly bonded with a full-of-life, 9-year-old boy who enjoyed soccer and laughing with the other children. The boy came to the clinic for an infection that had spread to his left eye. The medical team diagnosed what's called a Neglected Tropical Disease. NTDs are widespread and impact 1.4 billion people every year. But the good news is, the doctors were able to prescribe a course of treatment, the key to which was simple but effective: a steady routine of hand and face washing with clean water.

A year later Jordan returned for a second tour with the clinic and was surprised to see the young boy back. Now the infection had grown and formed a tumor over his left eye and part of his face. The once cheerful child was morose, dark and distant. Despite following doctor's orders, his parents were shocked that their son's condition worsened.

The doctors were not.

Here water -- the foundation of all life -- is a disease-ridden gateway to illness where preventable tragedies fall on little Honduran boys like this one who once loved soccer, and whose name just happens to be Cristian. Eleven-year-old Cristian died from complications from a treatable disease simply because he did not have access to clean water.

This pervasive level of illness and disease deprives adults and children of their health, a better standard of living, an education, a future. It breeds inequality, especially for girls and women, because water is a woman's burden.

When Fatima was just 8 years old, she spent three hours every day getting water for her family, hauling the heavy burden on her small back. Though most of the time the water was unsafe to drink, her family had no choice. In Niger where Fatima lives, more than 80 percent of the rural population has no access to safe drinking water. Niger has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Not surprising.

Fatima's story is replicated by millions of women and girls around the world. Mothers can spend up to 60 percent of their day hauling (often filthy) water for their families. It takes them away from caring for young children, growing food and earning additional income for their families. Families remain in poverty. Bodies will break down over time under the backbreaking weight of water.

And it's dangerous work. Some will be molested along deserted paths while collecting water, forced to trade sex for water, or like two sisters in India, ages 16 and 21, held at gunpoint and gang-raped by three men when they went to a nearby field in the early morning hours to relieve themselves.

The poverty cycle continues as girls leave school to help their mothers shoulder this burden. Or when there is no gender-appropriate bathroom facility to take care of their personal needs, they will drop out of school rather than face taunting and humiliation.

Not prioritizing the global water crisis defies humanitarian needs, and it defies logic.

We fight malaria but poor sanitation increases breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry the disease. We work hard to make sure HIV/AIDS patients get the anti-retroviral drugs they need, but already susceptible to disease, they must take these drugs with filthy water. It costs the world $260 billion in lost productivity every year. Even though every U.S. dollar invested in safe water and sanitation has an economic return of $4, our current funding for water and sanitation development amounts to less than one 100th of a percent of the federal budget. Meanwhile, the U.S. leads the world in per person water use. None of this makes sense.

But perhaps the greatest shame of all is this: the problem is solvable.

So why does this crisis remain so enormous and development work only a literal drop in the bucket? Well, when was the last time you thought about a child not having a safe glass of water? Exactly. What's missing is awareness, the sense of urgency and increased support for sustainable water development work.

Water is the singular symbol shared among every world religion. Who better to take the advocacy lead than the faiths? What's missing is us.

Human existence is about much more than water, but it can never be about less. From birth until death, the faiths share this recognition in ritual, symbol and deed.

Faith-based NGOs do a lot of good work, from hunger to AIDS relief, but it's all undercut by the fundamental absence of safe water and sanitation. What a tragic waste. NGOs also do water development fieldwork, but these projects are way too small, under-funded and sadly, after the photos are taken of the shiny new water project, too often NGO leaves without proper future planning and the project deteriorates into a proverbial "rusty pump." What's needed is far wider, sustained support for sustainable projects that bring water and sanitation to people for the long haul.

Real progress is achievable. Just ask some kids from Kansas and the 261 students at Ndururi School in Northern Kenya.

A Success Story:

During the rainy season, these students had rainwater but had no safe storage system and in the dry season, they often had to walk three kilometers every day to fetch water from a polluted stream. The school had sub-standard pit latrines and no clean water to wash their hands, which resulted in frequent bouts of illness.

Eight thousand miles away on a Sunday school field trip, eight middle school and 20 high school students from Kansas learned about the world's water crisis and decided to do something about it. With free support and guidance from a unique nonprofit called H2O for Life, which links U.S. schools with schools needing water and sanitation, these students came up with some clever ideas to help. From sending home empty water bottles with church members -- challenging each person to drop a nickel in the bottle each time they turned on their tap or flushed a toilet, to auctioning off a donated toilet from a local plumber -- these industrious kids raised $6,950. The implementing NGO matches student funds 100 percent, and $13,500 later, a lot has changed for the kids of Ndururi School.

They have roofs and gutters on the school to capture rainwater that goes through bio-sand filters and into a permanent rainwater catchment tank. The boys and girls now have four separate latrines each, plus hand-washing stations with soap. Teachers note a dramatic increase in attendance due to decreased illness, and lots more time in class because students no longer have to leave school midday to fetch water. The school's improvements led to improvements in the students' homes, and hand-washing facilities throughout the community, as students taught their families about the importance of hygiene and sanitation.

As for the American kids? They've learned a lot about kids just like themselves, and they've learned a lot about themselves, as well. Abby, a middle school student says it best, "It blows my mind to think that I have saved lives. It always seemed like that only happened in books, or with someone who was famous. Now I can say I've saved lives." These kids will be our next generation of civic and maybe even faith leaders.

Here's an acronym you need to know: "WASH" It stands for WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene. WASH is the work that needs to be done. Bringing about much-needed attention to WASH will put pressure on leaders, and pressure will lead to more effective policies and greater sustainability, increased innovation and more support for this keystone solution that will also improve health, nutrition, poverty, gender equality, food security and even peace.

Religious water is never neutral and passive and no longer can we be. It has powers and capacities to transform this world; and so do we. We possess some of the most powerful collective voices in the world and together, we can give life to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

From pulpit and pew, we need to be strong advocates for prioritizing sustainable WASH development work around the world, and even here in the U.S. Your voice counts. Speak up. Support your faith's water development work. Engage your youth through service-learning projects with H2O for Life. Faith leaders, influence your international counterparts who in turn can influence everything from local WASH policies to changing hygiene behavior. Call your congressmen and tell them to pass the bipartisan Water for the World Act that makes our policies more efficient -- and at no additional cost. And it's time each of us pays better attention to our water consumption at home.

The next time you hold that refreshing glass of water in your hands, remember that children are still dying for lack of the same. We can change that. We must. Together, the faiths can impact millions of lives and be a monumental example of multi-faith cooperation at its life-giving best by making water a source of life and health, for all.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Executive Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey) and Director, The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome

The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York)

The Most Reverend Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Church of America and past President, National Council of Churches (Washington, DC)

Laila Muhammad, African-American Muslim Church, Church leader and daughter of W.D. Muhammad (Chicago)

Father Dennis McManus (Georgetown University) (Washington, DC)

Rinchen Dharlo, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of the Americas and President of the Tibet Fund (New York)

Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, President, Auburn Seminary (New York)

Imam Mohamed Magid, President, ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and Executive Director at ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society)