Today on World Water Day, March 22, ChildFund New Zealand Programme Director Shona Jennings shares her thoughts on the importance of water and the myriad of challenges ChildFund and communities face in ensuring a safe and plentiful supply.

I so love to glug water. Not genteel sips from a sipper bottle, but to stand by a kitchen tap, fill my glass and empty the whole thing within seconds. There is no more satisfying way to quench thirst. In countries where I work, like Kenya, Zambia, Kiribati and Timor-Leste, places where my thirst is the most pronounced, I cannot do this. Instead I have to use my handheld water filter called a LifeStraw and I have to suck with real force to draw out a single mouthful. To drink any other way is dicing with death or, at least, a very upset tummy which, believe me, you don’t want in countries where toilets are few and far between.

Charity Water Day - ChildFundAfter a 10km walk, this is the water mother and daughter collect. (Photo: ChildFund/Jake Lyell)

As Programme Director of ChildFund New Zealand, I think a lot about how to get water to communities. Where there is water, it’s all about ensuring it’s safe to drink. When I say ‘communities’, the places ChildFund New Zealand works can be from the size of Matamata to the size of greater Auckland. So one simple water point is not going to cut it for the thousands of people who live there.

Solutions need to be many and varied. Some are:

  • Catching rain water (not so simple when most roofs are thatch);
  • Drawing water from rivers; or
  • Drilling into the ground to tap into underground water reserves.

Water engineers prepare hydro-geological surveys to find the most cost effective and environmentally-friendly means of satisfying a community’s water needs.

Plans are often complex in scale and cost. ChildFund is there to assist local governments as they improve conditions for their people. But the reality is that more than half of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa still lack easy access to safe drinking water.

Even when we reduce the hours spent fetching and carrying by getting water points closer to homes, there remains the question: is it safe to drink?

Charity Water Day - ChildFundDirty water causes diarrhoea - life threatening for children (Photo: ChildFund)

Water that looks dirty can be safe. Water that looks clean can harbour killer pathogens. And how can people tell? In the communities where ChildFund works, it’s trial by use. Over one million children die every year from dirty water and poor sanitation. Think about that figure: that’s almost all the children in New Zealand under the age of 17, dying each year.

Teaching parents about how to make drinking water safe is a vital aspect of ChildFund’s work. In Kenya last year, ChildFund trained 3,871 people on safe water treatment. Treatment solutions include:

  • Bio-sand water filters;
  • Solar disinfecting (where water in a clear bottle is left in the sun from between six hours to two days);
  • Boiling.

Hand in hand with this goes hygiene and the importance of keeping utensils clean. Which requires more water.

Charity Water Day - ChildFundWater is important for good hygiene (Photo: ChildFund)

We know fetching water is daunting as a daily task, but to that you can add more hours spent collecting firewood to boil it so it’s safe to drink. Studies claim that many women in rural Zambia spend between 600 and 800 hours per year collecting firewood.

And then there’s the importance of water for growing food. In many communities where ChildFund works, people survive through subsistence agriculture. They need huge amounts of water to grow crops. Historically, nature has provided most of the water needs through seasonal rains. But more and more farmers tell us that they can’t predict the seasons any longer. Sometimes it rains too much. Sometimes not at all – for years.

Climate change has disrupted farmers’ access to water, and the result is that they cannot grow enough for their families to eat. Almost 1 billion people in the world are undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

In the countries we work, ChildFund is trying to secure sustainable sources of water for crops. With Kiwi support we have been busy:

  • Building dams in Zambia;
  • Excavating water pans in Kenya; and
  • Building irrigation canals in Vietnam.

Back here in New Zealand, the tap over the kitchen sink is a daily reminder to me of my good fortune, and my imperative to do what I can to curb the ‘disaster of water’. A disaster that kills more people each year than all forms of violence, even war.

This World Water Day, I shall raise a glass of water and pledge anew to ensure others the world over enjoy the same right to clean accessible water. I hope you’ll join me.

There is still time to join ChildFund’s Trek Vietnam for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to ChildFund project areas and fundraise to bring clean water to children and families in Cao Bang. Visit the Inspired Adventures ChildFund Trek Vietnam page to find out more.

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