I won the lottery and didn’t even know it. Well I did, but I took it for granted. That’s the way Marla Smith-Nilson, the founder of Seattle-based Water 1st International, described how it felt to be a middle-class American. I went to her presentation in San Francisco last week to hear more about the organization and its work in the developing world. I left wondering why it is that I can easily plunk down $4 for a latte while someone else can’t even feed his or her family. I know I won the lottery; what about you?
When it comes to jackpots, we Americans have come out quite well, at least most of us. Water is just one resource where we’ve been lucky. I recently came back from a road trip where my husband and I passed through Palm Springs and a number of other towns out in the deserts of California. All I could think about was why were these places there, with green lawns and swimming pools. How could they justify green yards in the desert? And not a solar panel was in sight. I’m sure there are homes and buildings with solar panels, but I didn’t see them. Wait, I did see a solar powered trash compactor outside a coffee shop. Solar should be powering homes and businesses in southern California, especially in the desert (though there are wind turbines in the vicinity). If Los Angeles and surrounding communities hadn’t diverted the Colorado and Owens rivers, these towns would not exist at the scale they do. But I digress.
Back to Water 1st. Smith-Nilson recounted the story of a woman she met in Ethiopia who had to walk 14 miles to get brackish water to provide for her family. She and her 9 or 10 year old daughter bore this burden, carrying what have to be back-breaking containers of water. Every day. Hours a day are spent accomplishing this task. Many Ethiopians and families worldwide lose children to preventable water-borne diseases. Globally, it is estimated that 3.5 million people a year, mainly children under 5, die from water-related illnesses. One billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water.
The encouraging thing to keep in mind is that groups such as Water 1st, Women’s Earth Alliance, and a host of others are working with communities, and most importantly, empowering them in a sustainable and stable manner. They are in it for the long haul, not just sweeping in and imposing “first world” ideas on poor and marginalized villages. People like Smith-Nilson are striving to increase access to clean water and provide adequate sanitation facilities and better hygiene, in order to make a dramatic and much needed improvement for communities and child health. That would be winning the global lottery jackpot for us all.