Like most Americans, I have always taken for granted the availability of abundant supplies of clean water whenever I turned a knob on any faucet. A few weeks ago, however, I was in for a shock when nothing came out of the tap. My toilet did not flush. I couldn’t shower or even wash my hands. I couldn’t make a cup of tea.
Suddenly, I understood what it was like for some 300 million people in Africa (the population of the United States) who do not have access to safe water.
The facts about water, as reported by the World Health Organization and the United Nations, are staggering:
- Roughly one in six people, over 1 billion in the world, do not have access to clean drinking water.
- There are 2.6 billion people who live without a proper toilet.
- 40 billion working hours are spent carrying water in Africa each year.
- Households in rural Africa spend an average of 26 percent of their time fetching water, and it is generally women who are burdened with the task. (At left, a photo of Kenyan schoolchildren fetching water before school begins)
- In Africa, the average family needs 200 liters of clean water a day to survive—water that must be carried from distant wells every day.
- Rural women walk at least 10 miles a day to get water, often much more in dry seasons.
In my New York City apartment, the water was restored within a few hours, as soon as plumbing repairs in my building had been completed. But not having water for half a day drove home the importance of the work that the Voss Foundation is doing in Africa.
I am humbled to have been asked to participate in the Voss Foundation’s 2011 Women Helping Women luncheon on November 2. The honoree, Saran Kaba Jones, founder of FACE Africa, deserves all of our support.
In conjunction with the Voss Foundation, FACE Africa has begun a new project bringing clean water and hygiene practices to the Hope Mission School located in the Bernard Farm Community in Paynesville, Liberia. The project plan includes the implementation of two latrines and hand washing stations as well as one drilled well that will be only a 60-second walk from the school buildings.
Liberia has been in the news quite a bit of late. The country’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, just days before she went before the voters seeking reelection. Her award and election campaign reminded me of a stirring piece that President Johnson-Sirleaf wrote for the New York Times a year ago. In it, the President lamented the lack of proper toilets around the world and especially in her country. She described the deaths and illnesses that needlessly occur because of the lack of simple sanitation.
According to a recent report in The Lancet, the biggest killer of African children under five is diarrhea, which kills more children globally than AIDS, measles, and malaria combined. The vast majority of these deaths could be prevented by investing in safe toilet facilities, clean drinking water supplies, and raising awareness of the need to improve hygiene practices—for example, washing hands with soap. These simple and cost-effective interventions can also significantly reduce other leading causes of child deaths, such as pneumonia and under-nutrition.
In Liberia, we have seen important gains in reducing child mortality and an increase in budgetary government funding to the water and sanitation sector, from $200,000 in 2006 to $524,000 last year. With just 14 percent of Liberians having somewhere to call a toilet of their own, huge challenges remain, especially if we are to reach the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, and improve the population’s well-being.
President Johnson-Sirleaf’s plea has been heard by FACE Africa and the Voss Foundation. Since FACE Africa’s inception, the organization has completed two clean water and sanitation projects and impacted about 900 individuals. In the three and a half years of its own existence, the Voss Foundation has helped to bring access to clean water to over 100,000 people in Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and now Liberia. That may still be a long way from those 300 million on the continent who lack access, but on November 2nd, we will hope to add a few more drops to the bucket.
To purchase tickets to attend the Voss Foundation’s Women Helping Women fundraising luncheon, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-995-2255 for more information.