Easy Answers for Complex Problems

Here are some alarming statistics. Around the globe there are close to 1 billion people who lack access to clean, safe water. Also, because of a lack of sanitation, 4000 children die each day from diarrhea. Last week I watched "Water First: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals," a documentary by Amy Hart about Malawian waterman Charles Banda who is trying to change those statistics one village at a time.

Banda’s organization, Freshwater Project, is an indigenous NGO that works at the grassroots level with communities in Malawi to make clean freshwater and sanitation available to community members. Banda says that this, more than anything else, stabilizes a community and allows the community to make gains in health, education, women’s equality, food security and ultimately development (the main topics covered under the Millennium Development Goals).

Hart spent months in Malawi documenting what life is like for those with and without access to water.

Once people have access to a well and a toilet their lives improve drastically, especially so for women. In Malawi women and girls are typically responsible for bringing water to the household, a task that can sometimes take an hour per trip, for as many as 10 trips each day. Many women make these trips in the dark and are subject to sexual harassment and rape. They typically spend so much time finding water that many women are unable to spend much time with their families and as they grow older, many girls no longer have time to go to school.

Lack of sanitation is another reason many girls stop going to school. With no toilet facilities, when many girls reach puberty they have no privacy for dealing with personal hygiene, including menstrual needs, and often choose to stop their education altogether. This is unfortunate, according to Banda because, in Malawi uneducated women typically have five times as many children as educated women do. Banda said that educated Malawian women generally feel more of a sense of control over their lives.

I always knew that there was a connection between lack of water and women’s equality, but Hart’s film really solidified my understanding of exactly how it is played out. Banda said that because so many farmers throughout the world are women (in Sub-Saharan Africa it’s as much as 90% whereas in the United States it’s only 30%), access to water is really a gender equity issue. As residents of a country with ready access to taps and toilets, it’s easy to take water for granted and not draw those connections.

Hart and Banda effectively demonstrate how fundamental access to water and sanitation are to the stability and security of a community (as well as a country). Reasons for war can be complex, to be sure, but overlay a map of global areas of conflict with areas of water scarcity and a strong correlation becomes apparent. Most U.S. foreign aid goes to war efforts. Now, imagine how much more stability and national security we could achieve if we actually gave people water and sanitation instead of guns.