At first glance, the phrase “water burden” appears to be an oxymoron. How can the Earth’s most plentiful and accessible resource be considered a critical global problem? During these times of scarcity for some of the planet’s most valuable natural commodities (i.e. trees, oil, coal), our most abundant resource has developed into an enormous burden for over 20 percent of the world's population. Nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide lack access to the basic human necessity of safe drinking water. An unlimited resource for many has become a heavy economic and health burden for others.

1.3 billion people can feel like a seemingly insurmountable number considering the wide geographical span of the situation. However, this past decade has given us evidence that the tide is turning. There are thousands of new clean water programs being developed and operated by NGOs, governments, churches, schools and hospitals across the globe. Similar to the recent international responses on climate change and deforestation, people are finally beginning to recognize the size of the global safe water problem and have begun to assemble a much-needed movement to remedy it.

World Water Relief (WWR), a division of Emergency Response Resources Inc., is an American nonprofit based in Atlanta and one member of the growing clean water movement. Founded in 2008, the organization has focused its efforts on bringing safe drinking water to some of the most desolate and remote locations in Latin America. Working primarily in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Bolivia, World Water Relief strives to provide effective and sustainable community-based water solutions to people who have never before had access to this life-giving resource.

World Water Relief’s model provides state-of-the-art filtration systems — powered by grid electricity, generators or solar power — that feature a three-tier combination of sediment, carbon and UV filters. Producing up to 12 gallons per minute, this system, manufactured by First Water Systems Inc., is able to bring clean drinking water daily to a community of up to 3,000 men, women and children. Through its in-country partnerships and local implementation teams, WWR is able to extend its programs into remote areas where safe drinking water can create dramatic positive change in the health of the community.

The emphasis on safe drinking water’s role in the global health arena is drastically underestimated. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently that water-related disease is responsible for over 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world. Therefore, safe drinking water must play a more central role in the global public health mindset if lasting, effective change is to be had.

In a recent implementation trip to Barahona in the southwest Dominican Republic, WWR was given first-hand testimony supporting clean water’s central role in community health. According to World Vision health representative Dr. Migadora Bella, since the completion of a WWR clean water project in a sugar cane community called Batey 7, the local medical clinic had experienced a 70 percent decrease in patient visits from residents of this community. This trend demonstrates the power that clean water holds as a key component to basic health and hygiene in the developing world.

The health benefits of clean water have been proven and heavily documented; however, often overlooked are the extraordinary residual effects on education, economics and society, which can have just as big an impact. By drinking clean water, children reduce parasitic disease and gastrointestinal illness, leading to higher school attendance and performance. Men and women, who often miss work due to illness stemming from water-borne disease, experience improved job attendance and productivity as a result of better health through clean drinking water. The positive connections are endless, illustrating why water is considered the most pressing regional development issue in this area of the Dominican Republic.

Together with community leaders and NGO field experts, the WWR board of directors held local meetings throughout the Barahona area this past November to develop a 2010 water initiative for the region’s rural sugar cane communities. 15 sites have been selected for implementation over the next 12 months, all of which have no access to clean water. WWR hopes, by the end of next year, to have provided clean water access to a total of nearly 48,000 people in the southwestern Dominican Republic.

The potable water crisis is a heavy yoke. It is a yoke that the developing world has disproportionately carried over the past century. It is time for the nations and people who have lived with secure access to clean water to pitch in. It is a global obligation to provide this resource to those who still, in the year 2009, live with the suffering that results from dirty, disease-laden water.

One must question why, with the plethora of recent global advancements, we continue to allow over one fifth of the world’s population to live without this basic human necessity. Part of the reason is that this crisis has yet to fully grab the attention of developed nations and international organizations. As Americans, when we turn on our faucets, hose taps, shower heads and sinks during the course of our daily actions, it is rare that we appreciate and respect the commodity that we are consuming. Being highly accustomed to safe and available drinking water 24 hours a day, we tend to forget the process and value behind this seemingly endless resource. This simple recognition and awareness on an individual basis can become the first step toward positive change on a global scale. It takes a personal commitment to individual awareness, just like every other environmental concern (i.e. recycling, energy usage, gas consumption, etc.).

This change, from an individual level, can foster consciousness on a societal level, which in turn can bring about the legislation and international collaboration required to bring clean drinking water to those in need. Like most global challenges in the 21st century, we have the tools, resources and intellect to create a solution. Countries with the capability, technology and financial means to tackle the problem must become more involved and proactive alongside nations that lack the capacity to undertake this daunting task alone.

The initiative to bring clean water to every corner of the world must come from many angles and include input, participation and involvement from many nations. Yet, the beginning steps, the most important steps, stem from those who are now cognizant of the problem. It begins with those who understand the importance of clean water’s role in our everyday health. Clean water starts here.

Ben Seidl is a program manager with WWR, where he runs the water projects in developing countries. He is 2008 graduate of Boston College, where he finished with a finance major and a faith, peace and justice minor.

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