How Can Americans Understand the 748 Million People Without Clean Water?

The outhouse was a common feature on Midwestern farms when my father was a boy in the 1920s. His family farm had a hand pump down by the barn, about a hundred yards from the house. In the early 1930s they had well water piped into the house, but until 1952, they had no hot water or indoor toilets. Throughout my life, however, indoor plumbing and hot/cold running water are things I’ve taken for granted. I suspect there are very few Americans in 2015 who have no clean water for drinking or washing. As we have become accustomed to personal and private plumbing, we have lost an understanding of what life is like for the 748 million people worldwide without it.

The longest stretch of utility-related suffering I’ve had occurred in September of 2008 when Hurricane Ike traveled all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Pennsylvania, toppling a large tree in our yard, severing our power lines. Suddenly we lost all telephone, electricity AND internet. It took two weeks to regain all those utilities because we live on a hill with some challenging access issues and thousands of others had similar problems. It meant our kids had to get their homework done before dark. It meant driving to Starbucks to re-charge our cell phones and computers. It meant we could use the gas stove but not the microwave oven. Wow. How inconvenient.

I have never had to pump water except sometimes while camping. I have seldom been without access to clean safe water, and despite an occasional blocked toilet, our indoor plumbing has always been available. Americans sometimes wonder why other countries don’t just drill water wells for themselves. To us it seems like a simple thing to do. We might also ask why we are so advanced in education and health. We take it all for granted.

  • America is blessed with abundant water resources, large navigable rivers, lakes, temperate climate, and fertile land. We did nothing to inherit those blessings except to be born in America. Some areas of the world lack such natural resources.
  • America is blessed with a time-tested democracy in which our government strives for all people to thrive in freedom. Many other nations suffer corrupt dictatorships or tribal conflict or communist ideologies that hinder development.
  • And America is blessed with economic wealth. Across the globe, nearly half of all people live on less than $2 a day. Not only do they lack money to drill a well, but they lack knowledge as to where and how to drill, and in many cases they don’t even know it’s the dirty water that is killing them. How could they know?

So how can we relate? Some people judge the poor as intellectually inferior. “Too bad for them.” Some cynically believe that aid is futile because of the political challenges. “It all ends up in the hands of the bad guys.” Some are simply blind to the needs of others, inwardly focused, and self-absorbed.

My eyes were opened a bit on a recent Vision Trip with World Vision when we visited villages in Ethiopia where the only water source was a dirty stream an hour’s walk away. Children wore dirty clothes over dusty dry skin, in some cases with vision problems. Their brothers and sisters often died from diarrhea caused by water-borne bacteria. School was a luxury for those who were healthy and had someone else to fetch water for the family. School offered a glimpse of a better life, but short life expectancy and family obligations meant that few boys and fewer girls would ever rise out of the iron grip of poverty, poor health, and subsistence economics.

March 22 is World Water Day, a time to call everyone’s attention to the global water crisis. Dozens of water providers are accelerating their efforts to provide water to people who desperately need it.   World Vision alone has given clean water access to 2 million people in the last year. World Vision, a Christian NGO working holistically with 120 million children in 96 countries, is on pace to offer universal access to clean water in every area served by 2030 or even sooner!

When people have nearby access to clean water everything changes. Sanitation and hygiene become important skills. Health improves. Education is more available to girls. The ability to start a new business becomes a reality. Spiritual and emotional well being improves.

I wish everyone in America would look beyond our borders and see our brothers and sisters in the world with new eyes. We need not look far to find a cause we can support. Water is so basic. It has been called the first best investment. This year on World Water Day, let’s all wear blue and get everyone asking, “What can I do to give clean water to someone?”

Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in my name will receive a reward.”

Maybe this is what he was talking about.

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