World Water Day in a Time of Drought

This month's recognition of World Water Day - a day in which we acknowledge the fact that upwards of 1 billion people around the world do not have access to clean water - is underscored by two disparate events. In Flint, Mich., people are contending with the fact that the water from their taps is unsafe, a predicament that amplifies just how much we rely on clean water in every part of our daily lives. In a distant part of the globe, Ethiopia is experiencing a water catastrophe of a far different kind: another calamitous drought.

Exacerbated by El Niño, two consecutive seasons in Ethiopia have come and gone without adequate rainfall, and the consequences have been devastating. Without the crops that in a normal season would provide sustenance for some 80 percent of the country, more than 10 million people are unable to feed themselves. Close to a half million children are malnourished. Six million people need emergency water for drinking, sanitation and personal hygiene. While the Ethiopian government and international aid organizations are responding, the situation throughout the nation remains critical.

The weather patterns of East Africa make Ethiopia particularly vulnerable to drought. With an economy based on family-oriented subsistence farming and modest herding, periods of drought can easily rise to crisis levels. Experts fear that the current lack of precipitation may rival the epic drought of 1985 in human impact, despite an outpouring of donations.

That year, I saw the impact of the drought firsthand. As an aid worker in next-door Somalia, I worked in the camps that, in total, received some 1 million Ethiopian refugees. They would come in massive waves, tired, hungry, thirsty and eerily silent, perhaps drained of hope or at least any expectation that the day ahead would be better than the one before.

I had already begun to appreciate the precious nature of water during my earlier work in East Africa. In two years of living in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, it rained just once at my site. In that semi-arid area of northeastern Kenya, what little farming was attempted was carried out by irrigation. That didn't help the camels and goats the locals reared for their livelihood. There was, of course, no running water in most houses, either. Like millions of others around the developing world, water had to be carried in daily for our use.

In most parts of the developing world, the task of toting water is consigned to children. They rise early and, depending on their age and size, arm themselves with as many jugs and bottles as they can carry. If they're lucky, that early-in-the-day trip is made prior to school. But for too many others, their water-carrying duties can last throughout much of the day and cover many miles.

This is the case now during the ongoing drought in Ethiopia. Currently, more than 2 million children are at risk of dropping out of school, their contributions to the family's survival too vital to spare for the "luxury" of education. As a result of these potential dropouts, more than 3,000 schools are now at risk of closing. In many ways, the situation is akin to eating the seeds of crops that can't be planted. Without schooling, these children will never reap the fruits of an education, an education that is perhaps their single largest hope for disrupting the poverty that has burdened their families for generations.

Despite the colossal scale of the current drought situation in Ethiopia
, incremental progress has been made in helping bring a regular source of water to some rural parts of the country, at least during periods of regular rainfall. In the town of Buee in southwestern Ethiopia, for example, ChildFund International worked with members of the community and some local partners to develop several springs and wells, giving 12 neighborhoods access to safe water. By networking the water sources into a system with 32 different access points, the water now reaches some 8,000 people and eight schools. Given the scope of the problem, this accomplishment in Buee may be just the proverbial drop in the bucket, but it provides a model that can be replicated many times over.

Meanwhile, pioneering innovations also are beginning to flow in other parts of the world. Procter & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water program is helping communities across the globe turn dirty water into water clean enough to drink. By stirring P&G's Purifier of Water packets into buckets of water drawn from murky rivers and lakes, children and families without access to clean water can almost magically create supplies of drinkable water in a matter of minutes. And because the water does not have to be boiled, the process also saves the trees that otherwise would have been used for firewood. Our partnership with P&G in seven countries over the past decade has helped to turn what water that is available into a safe source for drinking, bathing, cooking and other uses.

No amount of engineering or innovation, however, can replace the rainfall that would normally have nourished the now failed crops and livestock so many Ethiopians depend on for their food supply. Until the rains return, our efforts during this time of crisis in Ethiopia are focused on working with the government to ensure that people get the nourishment they need, especially young children and lactating mothers.

As the poet W.H. Auden reminds us, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." With so many people in need of our help, World Water Day reminds us that we need both.