Monday, March 19, 2007

Water on the Brain

Hi, all.

For the past three days I’ve been mulling over and over in my mind the question of how much water I use in a day.

As many of you know, I'm not much of a water drinker - maybe two glasses a day.

But figure the average amount people use for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing the toilet. In the U.S. it's around 20 liters, or about 75 gallons a day per person.

I thought about this as our Landcruiser came upon a woman and her two young children on the side of a desolate road in Samburu District in central Kenya . In this area, populated almost entirely by the Masai tribe, women (they’re the ones who take on this task) walk an average of six miles every day to find water. They walk in sandals along dirt roads covered in canyons of scalding hot rocks and boulders. Some climb miles into the hillsides, searching for a fresh spring. Then, they walk all those miles back, carrying up to 20-liter containers of water for their families.

On this particular day, I was traveling with IMC’s country director for Kenya , Peter McOdida, as well as a Samburu District water official. The woman and her children whom we met were nowhere near a water source and had to resort to begging by the side of the road for whatever we or any other passersby might be able to provide. As we poured water into their containers, the two young girls playfully fought over them.

In this remote region of Kenya , water and the pursuit of it is everything.

Many Samburus go days without a drop. In the dry season, which constitutes a total of eight months of the year, they consume an average of about half a liter a day. Sometimes, they go with none. And whatever amount they are able to find goes immediately to drinking, sharing with farm animals, and cooking. Washing and general hygiene are a luxury. In the end, unsafe and insufficient water means sick children, unhealthy food, and malnutrition because animals don’t have enough to drink and fruits and vegetables are unable to thrive.

But there is another troubling result to the hours women and girls spend every day searching for water: these are hours that could’ve been spent getting an education or generating income. And for women with infants, this is time not spent breastfeeding. The lack of access to water compromises the health of the entire family.

So, what to do.

As in many of the crisis zones where IMC operates, a big part of the solution already exists within the community and it’s a matter of engaging the local population in fixing problems in a sustainable way. Samburu has numerous water points throughout the region but they are often far apart and/or are in disrepair, and they’re not being managed properly.

This month, Starbucks announced it was awarding $1 million to IMC over the next two years to train villagers and water officials in building and maintaining water supply systems in Samburu, as well as building latrines and providing hygiene and sanitation education programs.

We visited one of those water points slated for construction - in a village called Waso Rongai. There, we met a woman and her young daughter who had traveled about two miles to collect water from what amounted to a small bore hole in the middle of the sand. I peered into the hole at the dirty brown water as she scooped out cupfuls and poured them into a jerry can. For her, dirty water was better than no water at all. I dreaded to think what sorts of water-borne diseases she and her family might contract by drinking this.

She said what many other Samburus told me during this trip: “There is no water where we live and we have to travel great distances to find any. We need help.”

To get a sense of how IMC has already started helping, we went south to a village called Seren, where IMC helped residents construct a system of pipelines that extend to a freshwater spring about three miles up the mountainside. Before those water pipelines were there, women were forced to climb the mountain every day to reach the water source.

As I slowly – very slowly - made my way up this mountainside laden with boulders and dry sand, I imagined what it must be like for a woman to undertake this same trek day in and day out. I had a one liter bottle of water with me, which was empty by the time I reached the top, drenched in sweat and thoroughly out of breath. But she would have gone on that journey without water, then carried her heavy container back down the mountain.

Imagine what her life would be if the daily search for water were no longer a concern? As Peter said to me, “You fix the water problem and everything else falls into place.” A simple statement and I suspect a right one.

p.s. this coming Saturday at 10am, Starbucks is holding a "Walk for Water" from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach. The walk, which includes music and dance performances, is inspired by the three- to- six-miles journey women and children make every day in "water stressed" countries. The event marks World Water Day (which is officially this Thursday) and Starbucks will announce at that time the grant it's awarding to IMC.

Next week, I'm in Democratic Republic of Congo. I just hope my muscles can hold out.

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