THE BLOG

Want to Help Improve the Lives of Women in the Developing World? Start by Giving them Clean Water

09/27/2013 03:37 EDT | Updated 09/28/2013 10:37 EDT

We often forget how fortunate we are to live in a part of the world where an abundance of clean drinking water is available to us at virtually any moment. Safe tap water water is so cheap and accessible, we tend to take it for granted. Some of us are so misinformed that we become "picky" about tap water and buy "luxury" water that is shipped from far away places like France or Fiji. But for about 800 million people around the world, even having a safe water source is an indulgence, and certainly, not something to be picky about. Instead, it can be a life or death scenario.

Over the past two years, my brother, Tyler, and I have spent considerable time in communities that live through this water crisis every single day. Whether in remote villages in Bangladesh and Tanzania or big cities like Nairobi and New Delhi, a clear pattern emerged of how the lack of clean water hinders almost every aspect of social and economic development in such communities.

Without clean water and sanitation, fewer children attend school; adults lose work days and economic productivity to sickness; and just far too many people die. At any given time, as many as half of all the hospital beds in the world are occupied by people suffering from water-borne diseases. What makes this issue even more devastating is that much of this sickness and death is a result of easily preventable water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

Children under five are especially vulnerable to water-borne diseases because their immune systems are not developed enough to ward off the fatal effects of the common killers like diarrhea and dysentery. Two thousand children around the world are killed by treatable water-borne diseases every single day - a figure that's simply unacceptable in the 21st century.

While the relationship between the lack of clean water and poor human health is well understood, one aspect of this crisis that cannot be emphasized enough is how basic water and sanitation services can vastly improve the lives of women in the developing world.

No matter the country or cultural norms, women and young girls are almost always given the task of collecting water for their families. Often, this involves long hours in the hot sun collecting water, hours that could otherwise be spent going to school, earning an income or caring for children.

Without clean water it becomes almost impossible to climb out of poverty. When communities live in poverty and cannot afford to properly dispose of human waste, already scarce water sources become even more polluted. It is a vicious cycle.

On top of the back-breaking task of collecting heavy loads of water for hours at a time, women who must walk long distances for water also experience higher rates of sexual assault and violence. Adding to the problem is the lack of private, working toilets in schools: this discourages attendance by young girls who require privacy when dealing with already stressful personal hygiene issues. For women even more so than men, access to clean water and sanitation is about human rights and basic human dignity.

One of the most inspiring things we saw during our time in East Africa was how newly installed water projects like wells, rainwater harvesting systems and toilet facilities were being operated as businesses. Charitable investments from both local and foreign organizations were not just being used to build wells and toilets, but also to train community groups on how to manage the projects and charge locals a small fee to collect water or use the toilet. All the money that is collected is put back into the projects when they inevitably break down, or are used to expand and invest in new projects. We felt privileged to be part of a team raising funds for these projects.

Even more impressive is that several of the community projects we visited were entirely managed by women since they were the ones already responsible for collecting water. Once in charge of the project, many women were given their first opportunities to have a say in community decisions and were learning new financial skills like bookkeeping and managing savings for the future. Clean water was not just saving lives, it was transforming women into community leaders and providing opportunities that once seemed impossible.

So next time you are wondering whether you should spend a few dollars on water from France or Fiji, why not put that money aside and donate it to an organization that helps construct water projects in the developing world. Appreciate the clean tap water that is piped directly to your home, because as any woman who walks for water will tell you, you really don't know how lucky you are.

Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. The second season airs Tuesdays at 7:30 pm from September 10 - October 22 on TVO and at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. Learn more about the role clean water plays in the economic and social well-being of developing communities in the next episode of The Water Brothers, "No Woman, No Water," airing October 1.