03/24/2016 04:23 EDT | Updated 03/25/2017 05:12 EDT

When Waterborne Illness Got Real For Me

Bolivia, Cordillera Apolobamba, small pond
Boris Breuer via Getty Images
Bolivia, Cordillera Apolobamba, small pond

My ears popped as the truck travelled up, up into the mountains outside the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. The buildings faded behind us and were replaced by rolling green mountains with sparse, lonely trees dotting the tops.

Stepping out of the truck, the air felt significantly colder than the muggy heat of Cochabamba. Only an hour away, and we were in a different world.

The homes here are perched precariously on the sides of mountains, near streams and rivers. For centuries, the local Quechua people have drawn their water from these sources. Their ancestors, the Incas, built complex irrigation systems to move where they needed it to go. In some areas, these methods of watering the crops are still being used today.

Water that harms

But today, water from many of these sources is no longer safe for human consumption. Since both people and livestock use the water, they can often become contaminated.

The rivers and lakes are also dangerous for children who may not know how to swim. The banks can become swollen, and the current swift during the rainy season. Small children who use the rivers as a latrine or wade in with buckets to gather water can get caught under the flow and swept away. We met a mother who said her children have even seen snakes sliding through the river.

The water sources can also be far from people's homes. It can take hours, or even all day, for some remote households to reach the water source. With parents busy working to feed their families, the task can fall to children- children who then don't have time to go to school.

First-hand pain

Just a week before this mountain trip, while staying in the city, I had discovered for myself just how dangerous dirty water can be. Throughout my time in Bolivia, I had dutifully washed any fruit and vegetables I consumed, just like we do in Canada.

But three weeks into the visit, I got sick. Very sick. The first day of the illness I popped my traveller's medication, hoping to calm my stomach and get some strength back. But by the second morning, I knew that something was seriously wrong. We went to the hospital.

The doctor who examined me gave an almost immediate diagnosis.

"The vegetables you ate were contaminated with dirty water," she said.

Right away my mind flashed to the beautiful, colourful salad I had made my husband and myself yesterday evening. Despite my diligence in washing the vegetables, I had poisoned myself. I had a waterborne illness.

I know from first-hand experience that when you are sick from a waterborne illness, the smallest task can seem insurmountable. For days during my illness, just walking up the stairs required colossal effort. For a child suffering from the same illness, going to school is out of the question.

Imagine children's suffering

On the mountainside, listening to the World Vision Bolivia staff who guided us explain just how many kids get sick, and even die from the same disease I had suffered from, I wanted to cry.

Children all over Bolivia battle this kind of illness every day. Little kids, especially those under five years old, undernourished already and with developing immune systems, are struggling to stay alive just because of the basic human need for water. Waterborne illness is easy to catch, as I discovered. But for children all over Bolivia, it is very difficult to get rid of.

Children in rural communities don't have the easy access to medicine I did. Without proper bathrooms, the illness can spread quickly. And parents who are barely making ends meet can't afford to buy bottled water for their children. So a sick child must continue to consume the water that made them sick in the first place.

Clean water gives life

Just as dirty water sentences kids to lives of illness and suffering, having a reliable source of clean water can set them free.

When my husband and I visited one of the mountain homes, we met a young girl for whom clean, accessible water has meant a renewed chance at a full life.

Irma is 12 years old and actively learning and growing at a nearby school. But it wasn't always this way. For many years of her life, Irma's water source was a polluted, dangerous river down the mountain from her house. But then World Vision equipped her home with a basic washroom, an outdoor washing station and water pump, all supplied by a regularly tested reservoir up the mountain from her home.


"We used to get sick from the water," Irma told me, "we would get stomach aches and diarrhea." Even boiling it was no use. I remembered my two days doubled over on the bed, unable to keep in any nutrients or even move without difficulty. It's not hard to imagine why Irma used to miss so many weeks of school every year.

Maria, Irma's mother, says her five children used to get sick from the water too often for growing kids going to school.

Now, she said, "I feel more relaxed."


The entire community is more at ease, now that World Vision has established 1600 of these 'wash stations' around this area of Bolivia. The joy and pride everyone takes in their modern structures made me realize how much something we take for granted really means.

When you desperately need one, a clean, working washroom is literally a lifesaver. And water that can heal, not hurt, is even more precious.


You can help

Around the world, there are so many more communities like Irma's that are in need of clean, accessible water sources. World Vision is committed to reaching as many of these as possible, so that children like Irma can go to school and live an illness-free, full life.

I hope you will join us, and visit our clean water campaign to be a part of this powerful change. Children like Irma will thank you.

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