Living in San Francisco today, I wake up every morning and take a hot, albeit, brief shower followed by what seems like access to an endless supply of clean drinking water supplied directly from the Sierras. We don’t even have a Brita filter- I know shocking. While the warnings on the news about our occasional droughts certainly register, I have never turned on the tap to find it dry or dirty. This is definitely in sharp contrast to my childhood. Not that I ever went without water, but water takes on a whole new meaning when the options are either to pay to have it trucked to your reservoir or to grab a bucket and walk down to the local stream containing the runoff of thousands of human activities… some cleaner than others.
With two international aid workers for parents, my childhood unfolded in Haiti. Witnessing first hand the lengths to which people go to get, prepare, and use nominal amounts of water certainly made a lasting impression. Personally, the only major inconveniences for me were when the reservoir temporarily ran out or the occasional bug crawled out of the tap while I was brushing my teeth. We never swallowed that water. There was a whole other delivery system that supplied our weekly drinking water. Relatively speaking, we were very rich.
One of my friends in the neighborhood had a very different story. She and her family lived in a one bedroom house with no running water and no bathrooms. Everyday one of her main responsibilities was to make several trips to the river way down the hill and bring back water for bathing, drinking, and washing dishes. Now, if you are an average American, just think of how much water it would take to accomplish just those three activities throughout the day, then add laundry. She would make several trips, sometimes with her mother, so that everyone in the family could basically have a cold bucket bath. Then there was a whole other ritual around boiling the water for drinking. Efficiencies were required to stretch a five gallon bucket as far as possible.
As a child, I was fascinated and would often join her to carry the water precariously balancing the bucket on my head and usually winding up more wet than helpful. She on the other hand could not understand my fascination because, as soon as she was done with her chores, all she wanted to do was swim in our pool. I did not have to make these efforts for my water. These were more novelty treks imbued with deep life lessons. The water source near our house was still fairly clean because we lived higher on the hill. Generally, in these kinds of situations, the further down it goes, the dirtier it becomes. You have no doubt seen some images of what life looks like at the bottom of the hill in light of recent events in Haiti. It makes my childhood story seem like the good old days.
This last March, the Foundation Center prepared background research for the Global Philanthropy Forum on how U.S. foundations are responding globally to issues around access to clean water. During the conference, I attended a panel presentation moderated by Margaret Catley-Carlson, chairperson for the Global Water Partnership, which highlighted just how interconnected water issues are with all aspects of development. Access to clean water is intertwined with nutrition, health, education, business, agriculture, politics, and many aspects of women’s empowerment. Given what a central role water plays, it was disappointing to discover that U.S. foundations only spent $72 million in 2008 (0.0019% of total foundation giving that same year) to tackle access to clean water in developing countries and, only $20,000 of that went to Haiti. The post-earthquake projection is likely to be considerably more but the need has also exponentially magnified. What will philanthropy’s response be once the world stage turns its attention to other emerging crises?
Thinking back to my friend’s life, one must wonder what opportunities might have opened up for her had she not been required to make multiple trips to the river and lived in place where there was a reliable public works system that supplied clean drinking water to her family. Just the time alone opens up possibilities.
The occasion of this Blog Action Day presents an opportunity to reflect on just how fortunate I continue to be, but also on what lies ahead as an increasing number of people around the world cannot access clean water and suffer all the related consequences.
Please visit our web portal to see how foundations and multi-lateral organizations around the world are tackling this challenge and many other pressing issues of our day.
(All the photos in this blog were taken by my father in the late 1980's)