I guess 'happy' isn't the right word to use here.
A couple of days ago, I read that Wednesday 22nd March would be World Water Day. And, I read that 663 million people live without a safe water supply close to home; that women and children are those who must carry the burden of collecting water for the household; that a lack of safe water is a major contributor to health problems in the developing world.
Those facts and figures felt familiar to me - Where I live and do fieldwork in Burkina Faso, the water that I and most people living around me rely on comes from unprotected wells, which don't fulfil the WHO's definition of safe water.
Also in the same villages, drawing water is definitely women's work - I've never seen a man carrying water. Whether it's safe or not, the transport of water is back-breaking, time-consuming, energy-sapping. Wealthier families (and me, I use my bicycle) have bicycles and donkeys to help the women to carry the many litres of water a family needs each day to wash, cook, clean and drink. But many women carry their water - 25-30 litres at a time - on their heads, walking up to 1km between their homestead and the nearest dug well, several times a day, in temperatures of up to 45C.
As I was reading about World Water Day, three memories came to mind. The first is trivial, the second two are not:
1- The memory of time that the nearest well to me was contaminated, and for a week I had to walk twice as far to get water. What was already an arduous and time-consuming task became more so - and I felt guilty and resentful of the privilege that allowed me to be frustrated by this.
2- The memory of a man in the village pointing out that if they only had the money to build a dam, they'd be able to grow so much more. A river flows past the village where I work. In the dry season it's a cracked riverbed, and in the rainy season it's a dangerous and volatile torrent. The surrounding homesteads are water-poor. They can only grow crops during the short rainy season, limiting them to staple crops requiring little water. As soon as he said it I could see it in my mind's eye - a diverse, water-rich vegetable garden, communally-owned and fed by irrigation via a simple dam. I've seen it in other villages nearby. Fertile soil is a sure ticket to a more food- and financially-secure existence, and this can be achieved with a plentiful water supply.
3- The memory of woman in my village who came home one evening feeling unwell. She couldn't walk the 500m to collect water (which they draw from an unprotected well) to prepare food. Her neighbour came round and made her and her husband some maize porridge. She felt better, and went to sleep. The next morning, she was dead, and her husband buried her next to their 9-yr-old son, who had died a few months before, also from unexplained causes. They live 7km from the nearest clinic, along dirt tracks that are inaccessible by car, so an evening visit to the doctor wasn't an option. They'd had a bad harvest, so they were stressed and food insecure. Was it a water-borne disease that killed them? Would better sanitation have protected them against ill-health? A lack of access to safe water is part of a vast suite of interrelated problems that make it near-impossible for households to even see a way out of the struggles of poverty, let alone have the strength to do so.
So back to World Water Day. After my three memories/stories, I've three thoughts:
Firstly: This is NOT just about water. In many parts of the world, a lack of safe water is a symptom of a much greater problem: Wealth inequality. Just look at my stories above. In the first, I'm jolted out of my comfort zone by a situation that could be deadly for some, but for me it's just an inconvenience. Why? Because when I get ill, I have the money to pay for healthcare, for transport to the nearest clinic, for medicine, etc. If it's really bad, I even have money to fly me to the UK for round-the-clock medical care.
Secondly: I think the same is true for food security. It's NOT just about food; it's a term we use to describe another symptom of wealth inequality. This is evident in the second story sbove - food security and water security are both dependent on financial security.
Thirdly: By focusing on the symptoms of food and water insecurity, are we missing the point? Are we failing to diagnose and confront the greater malaise of wealth inequality - and in doing so, failing to acknowledge our role as perpetrators of this system?
I know that this is where I should tell you about a great way to help in the fight against wealth inequality, and towards a more water-secure world. But it's not easy - even the World Water Day official website just has advice on how to spread the word about unsafe water..which is not bad in itself, but I can't help feeling that there is something more that we can, and should, do.
So here are my three ideas for small actions we might want to take today:
1. A bit of wealth redistribution. Water.org offers affordable loans to women to install safe water and sanitation facilities! Every $1 you give has a $4 return. So donating to water.org is one positive action to take today.
2. A bit less water wastage. Get into the habit of doing one or more of these practical steps toward a more water-secure world: Take a shorter shower. Wash your hair less frequently. Eat less meat, & swap it for vegetable protein, which uses FAR less water. Or, just cut down on your protein, as most people in developed countries eat too much anyway. Dont leave the tap running when brushing your teeth or washing plates. Turn off the shower when you're applying soap/shampoo. Handwash your clothes when you can.
3. A bit of altruism - if you'd like to do something to help the water-, food- and financially-insecure communities where I work, please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign here. If you've other ideas for how these communities can be more water-, food- and financially-secure, please contact me directly. And if you're interested in knowing a bit more about the women I work with, here's a recent blog post that gives a bit more information about their lives.