September 27, 2012 BY Brooke Loughrin
Personally I had to fetch water about twice a week before going to school… There are girls that live in rural areas where there is no water at all and they have to walk…perhaps the whole day looking for water…This one issue keeps them out of school.” – Maame Yankah at the Social Good Summit
Water is essential. In three days we die without it. Yet, nearly one billion people live without access to clean water. In India, Senegal and Tajikistan, I have experienced living without access to a reliable source of water, and in my volunteer work I continue to grapple with the alarming ways in which water scarcity can disarm efforts to solve global issues.
A few years ago one of the girls I worked with from the Hèrè Jè Center (a microfinance and women’s training cooperative in Mali, Africa) died of malaria from bathing in a pool of standing water surrounded by mosquitoes. The Center provided her with education, food, shelter, and economic opportunity, but when she was away she was not safe because she lacked access to clean water.
In developing countries, the burden of water scarcity falls most heavily on women and girls. Girls are denied education because they are sent to fetch water, often spending four to five hours each day searching for water. Others are not allowed to go to school because there are no facilities there, and their parents fear they will be raped or kidnapped if they leave school to go to the bathroom. Domestic chores require water, yet many women find less than half of what is considered a basic human right to drink. The inequity of the water burden forces girls around the world out of education and young women to decide whether to give their children unsanitary water or no water at all. If the education and empowerment of girls is one of the best strategies for fighting global poverty, then addressing water is paramount to the success of this strategy.
During my presentation at the Social Good Summit on Sunday, I told the audience that the global water crisis matters to me because water scarcity impacts the daily lives of women and girls. For many in the audience, this approach to the problem was refreshing as they had not directly thought about water issues as a women’s issue. Water may seem plentiful in places like my hometown of rainy Seattle, but my experiences in other countries have made me realize that efforts to address other global issues, such as women and children’s health, security and education, cannot be successful without addressing water.
This week, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to learn first-hand about some of the ways the UN is addressing water issues. For example, today I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on “Water, Peace, and Security” with high-level delegates from around the world, including: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union and Vice President of the European Commission; Michael Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water; and Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
The consensus of the panel, as expressed by Secretary Clinton, was that access to clean water is vital to almost every global issue:
“Whether you’re talking about economic development or improving global health, whether you focus on promoting food security or building peace or coping with climate change or providing sustainable energy, access to clean water is critical.”
The panel also emphasized that water scarcity could have profound implications for peace and security. More than 260 river basins, home to over 40 percent of the world’s population, are shared by two or more countries, and therefore promoting cooperation on shared waters is essential:
“I think water should be a priority in every nation’s foreign policy and domestic agenda...Here at the UN, we have to work in our continuing efforts to ensure no child dies of a water-related disease and certainly no war is ever fought over water,” said Secretary Clinton.
The UN is the most important forum in the world to work on a multi-disciplinary approach to solving water issues. For example, the recent collaboration between the Millennium Village Project, the Earth Institute of Columbia, JM Eagle, and the Senegalese government represents how cooperation between the government, private sector, civic organizations, and local populations can help a community find a sustainable water solution.
Another vital component of addressing global water security is education about new, innovative ways, such as the UNICEF TAP Project and charity:water, individuals and communities can help address water issues. It is increasingly clear that without addressing water insecurity, efforts to solve other global issues will collapse under the weight of water matters.
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