In honor of World Water Week, here is a short story that will help to juxtapose the sharp contrast between the lives of people in two halves of the hemisphere.
Akot is a girl living in Northern Uganda. She is but 15 years old, ripe for marriage but still dreaming of a life where girls go to school and eventually lead independent lives. Every morning she wakes up, praying to escape the circle that life has dealt her. She wakes up at dawn, grabs her bright yellow 20 litre jerrican and hurries off to the stream that is about 5 miles away to fetch water with the other girls. While she does this her younger brother and her elder brother are getting ready to walk to school which is about 20 minutes away on foot. They have no shoes, and all they pack is roasted cassava and dried nuts for lunch to tie them up until they come back home for a super prepared by mother and sister.
On the way to the stream, Akot and the other girls, some younger and some older have to stick together for fear that there is a drunken man preying on young girls at this time of morning. Even though all their futures look bleak, they enjoy the pleasures of group conversations and giggle as they each tell one another the dreams they had the night before and their hopes for a better life, as they cry tears of water for the loss they suffer of a life not fully lived.
You see, Akot is just one of the many girls in developing countries whose parents (insert fathers) have had to give up paying school fees for because they are better off fetching a dowry. Akot, like many girls gets left behind in the education system and thus is resigned to household duties and that of being married off to birth an heir for her husband. She will not make it past the age of 16 before this happens by which time her life will resort to the same din of fetching water and cooking food, and later cleaning up. Try as she may to escape her fate, it is determined for her by her station and birth.
On the same planet, in a different continent, Grace is one lucky 15-year-old girl who worries for nothing, at least in the sense of what resources she needs to survive. She lives in Nebraska where she goes to school with enough food for breaks and lunch. Lunch is provided by the school. The school has a water fountain where students go to refill their cups. When she comes home, she is not expected to fetch water from a well or do the cooking, unless she offers to. Providence ensures that she is able to drink out of the taps in her parents’ home without the danger of falling sick or contracting a water-borne disease. Her prospects are bright and she is hoping to finish school and land a scholarship to the college of her dreams, after which she will either start a business or run for public office.
The reality is that Akot is a victim of a multitude of factors. The poor choices her government makes in regard to how taxpayer money will be used, the fact that her parents live in a village so detached from development that they have to make hard choices on who gets educated based on gender, the age-old cultural system that values girls at the price of commodities and boys as heirs of properties. She is a victim of water poverty in every sense of the word and yet try as she may, escape is but a dream.
The question is what can be done about this? Why do we live in a world where half of us have and the others lack? How are institutions, policies and intergovernmental agencies addressing the gap? If you feel overwhelmed and disempowered, welcome to the club. There are a lot of us who feel this way and who feel like doing this alone is simply impossible and heart-wrenching.
To solve a problem like this takes a combination of several factors. Advocates that raise awareness, institutions that mostly talk and try to draft policies, and organizations and individuals that band together to unite and act. The secret sauce is unity. And remembering in your haven of having and living with all the things others do not have that gratitude is key. Be grateful to live in your world where you feel safe and have clean drinking water, donate to an organization that is helping to bring safe water closer to those that need it, volunteer on your PTO to go to these communities and give back, listen to their stories, tell their stories, run for office and change something. If you are looking for a purpose, this is one, and it is extremely critical.
Water is life. Let’s not lose it.