Sharing the Burden of Thirst on World Water Day

As we drink water straight from the faucet, it's hard to believe that one in six people around the world lack clean drinking water, and every 15 seconds another child dies because of it.

Today, Tuesday, March 23rd, I'm in D.C. representing the global health organization PSI for a series of activities in observance of World Water Day. I am briefing members of Congress on my experience in Southern Sudan, joining what will hopefully be the world's longest toilet queue to bring awareness to the need for improved hygiene and sanitation in developing countries around the world, and I will pass out copies of National Geographic magazine's April issue, which is dedicated entirely to water, to lawmakers in hopes of educating them on these critical but solvable issues.

To be in D.C. on such an important day is both exciting and humbling -- the U.S. government provides generous levels of funding for water, sanitation and hygiene efforts in some of the world's most vulnerable communities -- the latest numbers hover around $315 million for 2010. As I write, U.S. Senators are discussing the Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which is a bill that would place water at the top of the U.S. government's priority list and would help provide access to clean, safe drinking water for 100 million people. I feel grateful for the generosity of the American government and for taxpayers like you and me who make this work happen.

In the past I have posted details of my trip to Southern Sudan -- I wrote about the people I met and the programs I saw. I remember wondering what my value on that trip would be and how I would use it when I came back to the U.S. Watching women in the village show their neighbors how simple it is to purify their water and listening to school children sing songs about the importance of hand washing and water purification inspired me to join them as peer educators -- to help spread the word. So that's what I'm doing today for World Water Day -- I'm hoping to educate others on this important issue and I am urging for continued policymaker support for these life-saving interventions.

The global water crisis creates consequences that go far beyond mere physical illness. It has an effect on education, empowerment and economic growth. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to its ill effects. While I was in Sudan, I joined Antoinette and her son Jido on their walk to collect drinking water from the Nile -- the sun was intense, beating down on us for hours as we walked miles to her filthy water source. Far from the security and comfort of my daily life, I realized just how vulnerable our small group was -- how anything could have happened on that walk. And, unfortunately, it does. Women are too often the victims of sexual violence while fetching water. For women like Antoinette the burden of thirst is clear -- unable to attend school, little time to devote to education, not a shot at developing economic ventures, and living in constant risk of rape and abduction. Tina Rosenberg has written a powerful piece on "water slaves" which documents this injustice in the National Geographic Magazine's April issue that I will be passing out.

For those who may ponder the value of "days" like this -- they allow us to rally around the progress we've made and remind us that the job is far from complete.

We have cost-effective tools to provide clean, safe drinking water to everyone in need -- I drank clean water that was purified with one such product while in Southern Sudan. But without cooperation from all sectors -- public, private and civil -- Antoinette and her friends will continue to carry their heavy jerry cans alone.

Please join me this World Water Day and lend your voice to those in need. Visit to learn more about the issues.