Providing Safe Water, One Photo at a Time

Ever wonder what a day without clean water looks like?

Try this scenario on for size: You wake up with dirty clothes and bedding, since laundry is limited. You won't be able to take a shower, wash your face, or just make some coffee. If you are a woman, you and your daughter will need to go on a six-kilometer trek to fetch water for the day's cooking, drinking and care of ill family members. Want to go to the bathroom? Then you will have to wander deep into the fields, which is not just an inconvenience but also a major safety risk: Both animals and men could attack along the way.

Unfortunately, the scary walk to the toilet isn't the worst risk when it comes to unclean water. Diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and unsafe water kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.

Children in particular are at risk. Every minute, three children die from a preventable water-borne disease. More than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate access to freshwater and nearly two-thirds lack facilities to go to the bathroom or wash hands.

I visited my first water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project in the early 1990s. It was in Mexico, and the shiny new sanitation facility was built right on the edge of a creek. I don't claim to be a health expert, but it seemed obvious that the human waste would pollute the water for downstream users--and damage a precious ecosystem.

Of all the water on Earth, just 3 percent of it is fresh--and most of it is frozen in glaciers or as permanent snow. Just 1 percent of the world's water provides all drinking water, is used for sanitation and health, delivers food through fishing and crop irrigation, provides energy and houses an incredible range of biodiversity--10 percent of animals and 40 percent of fish. Because of pollution, dams, overuse, and other impacts, freshwater habitats and species are in worse shape than any other ecosystem type.

When I returned to Mexico years after my initial visit, the sanitation facilities weren't being used. This wasn't unusual. In the early days of WASH projects, almost half of the systems in developing countries became inoperable after five years--not because of inadequate technology, but largely because of a failure to capture community interest. In some way I was relieved, since it meant a fighting chance for a healthy creek and the communities downstream.

Successful WASH projects integrate the value of freshwater ecosystems and take a holistic approach that benefits people, the planet and local economies. Sustainable access to freshwater and sanitation leads to healthier people and economic growth, which facilitates improved environmental management and stewardship. In other words, healthy communities help preserve a healthy planet, and a healthy planet is the foundation for healthy communities.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) promotes a better understanding among local communities about how to manage their natural resources and how proper hygiene practices, sanitation and environmental stewardship can prevent disease and advance a more sustainable standard of living. We believe that among the most telling indicators of conservation success is that communities emerge as both stewards and beneficiaries of the land--and water--where they reside.

To maximize our impact in places like in Mozambique and Cameroon, WWF, with the support of companies like Johnson & Johnson, focuses on education and improved access to water and latrines in schools. Water and sanitation programs in schools reduce disease (including intestinal worms), increase student attendance and learning achievement, and contribute to gender equality.

You too can help simply by donating a photo. For each photo contributed, Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 to WWF, which will be used towards building or repairing wells for schools in Africa. It takes about $1,000--or 1,000 photos--to build one well, which will help children avoid sanitation-related diseases and infection.*

The field has come a long way since I saw my first WASH project in Mexico. Through my work with WWF, I'm grateful to be a part of innovative, comprehensive WASH projects that consider the social, economic and environmental impacts of freshwater. Today, everyone can do something to support such projects--even if just by sharing a picture.

*This opportunity comes through a partnership under which Johnson & Johnson has guaranteed that by February 1, 2014, it will make minimum donation of $10,000, and a maximum donation of $15,000, to support WWF's work in Mozambique.