Few scenes in film are more memorable than the famous parting of the Red Sea, a young Charlton Heston at the helm, in the 1956 Academy Award-winning film “The Ten Commandments.” About this time each year, this magical celluloid moment annually depicts the ability of water to save lives, and to take lives, courtesy of the great Cecil B. DeMille.
The magic of special effects aside, I wonder, if the daily destruction and struggles caused by water were illustrated so graphically in real life as they are in film, would more of us pay attention to the deadly role water plays in millions of lives? More children die from illness and disease caused by the lack of safe water and sanitation than war, or TB, AIDS and malaria combined. The Angel of Death doesn’t pass over 8000 children every day – that’s the number under age 14 who die from water-related disease, every day. Almost a billion people don’t have access to safe water and 2.5 billion don’t have the dignity and safety of sanitation.
Yet water, this source of life and death, takes on an almost sacred role in every world faith. From the Mikvah and Baptism, to funeral rites and ablutions before prayer, it is the singular symbol every faith shares. We look to water to cleanse and purify and honor. But do we honor God with every day that passes and another 8000 children are lost to this world?
Without safe water and sanitation, we cannot curtail malnutrition, a multitude of diseases, or poverty.We cannot support sustainable farming and food security, promote girls’ education or gender equality.Not even peace can be achieved when some have and others don’t have something as basic to life as water.
Both secular and non secular Water/Sanitation/Hygiene [WASH] development work need dramatically ramped up, far wider support, and most important of all, they need to be sustainable. Here’s why:
Nov. 2, 2012 was an historic day in Bolivia.One of its poorest municipalities did what other richer areas could not do: the local government, in partnership with US-based Water For People, the 15 communities that make up Cuchumuela, and the health and education sectors, reached every single person in this municipality of nearly 2,000 people with safe water at home. They no longer needed to walk several kilometers a day to bring dirty water home to drink.
Unfortunately, many success stories of water construction projects end here. The system is built, the NGO takes pretty pictures for donors, and leaves.Cecile B. DeMille isn’t the only one who can stop the flow of water. So can a poorly planned water project, and that’s something all too common. The NGO is gone, the system breaks, and there’s no long term plan — funding, parts or people — who can fix it. Part of today’s global water crisis is preventable project failure. In Sub-Saharan Africa across 21 countries only 2/3 of hand pumps are working. This failure rate represents an investment of between $1.2 and $1.5 billion in the last 20 years. In Port-de-Paix, Haitithere are no functioning public water sources and 14 of 19 different sites throughout the city tested for water quality were bacterially contaminated. In Pakistan, 20% of local projects are nonfunctional and only 43% of community-based water boards, responsiblefor these projects, are functional.
A year into the Cuchumeula project, things weren’t looking so good either. Water sources had dried up due to overuse, and local management was basically non-existent. Service was intermittent; local fees weren’t being collected; not a single community had a fully functional water system.
Water For People didn’t leave. Instead, they and like-minded NGOs have begun pushing WASH development to the next and necessary level: sustainability. They implemented a sustainability-monitoring program in Cuchumuela to make sure the water systems were functioning as planned.That was five years ago. Today a very different Cuchumuela exists.Not only does every community have a water system and every community has a trained water committee responsible for collecting fees and operating and maintaining their system. Continued monitoring indicates that water in Cuchumuela will flow forever. Pumps do break. The communities have stepped up, paying $500 to make repairs, and new families have been able to connect to existing systems, maintaining high levels of coverage.
Access to clean and safe water means life, health and freedom. There is no better time than now, with spring rains and renewal, Passover’s Exodus to freedom, Lent’s reflection and sacrifice, and Easter’s celebration, to ask ourselves if we have the moral vision and will to make safe water the urgent priority it needs to be. Let’s grow those life-giving projects that bring water and sanitation to the millions who need it, for the long term.
To keep the water flowing, encourage your faiths’ development NGO to sign onto the WASH Sustainability Charter which supports and shares sustainable programming, monitoring and evaluation.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad is internationally renown in the world of interreligious dialogue. He heads the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey, has known the last three popes and has been instrumental in improved relations between Jews and the Catholic Church, facilitating many historical events including: the first time a Pope entered a synagogue, diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, and he teaches Catholic leadership at the Pontifical University, The Angelicum, in Rome. Rabbi Bemporad is also actively engaged with Muslim leadership — taking leading American Imams to Auschwitz on a history-making trip about compassion, and he speaks out against Islamaphobia. He was a Holocaust refugee at age 6 from Italy.