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Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt

Posted: September 22, 2009 12:28 PM

Bigger Than Africa

What's Your Reaction?

Africa is hot. A hot topic, that is. Its going to be front and center at the UN session that opens today in New York.  It will be at the top of the agenda at the Clinton Global Initiative down the street from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

And with good reason. Indeed, the world has watched in horror through the years as it has grappled with tragic genocides, HIV and AIDS, malaria, governmental corruption, international aid debacles, widespread poverty, droughts, food shortages, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. These issues have swept the news.  They are the focus of several new books, some arguing for rethinking traditional aid programs, others on the entrepreneurial innovations that can reshape the continent.  Addressing these issues is a priority for a growing parade of non-governmental organizations.  More than a few celebrities have taken up the crusade.

And who would dare call all of this attention a negative thing? In general, people from all walks of life have seemed to rally on behalf of Africa: advocating on its behalf, engaging in conversations about its challenges, and providing financial assistance.  Clearly these are positive measures, expressions of compassion that are admirable, worthwhile and should be supported. 

However there is an issue even bigger than Africa that demands our attention: the global water and sanitation crisis. Though many do not realize it, almost two-thirds of the people without access to clean water live outside of Africa. And the number of those in India without improved sanitation is nearly double those in Africa.

 To drive this point home, imagine this reality: we soon live on a planet that has more cell phones than toilets.  While the iPhone might be sexy, I cannot imagine that there is any argument about which device is more important to the preservation of human dignity and the well-being of our collective society.  Yet today, in our modernizing global economy, more than 600 million people – double the entire U.S. population – are practicing open defecation in India alone.

 The water and sanitation crisis as a whole is hard to fathom, and mainly because it is completely preventable.   In our advanced society, few can comprehend that excrement is the leading cause of illness in the world.  When you always have clean water within reach, who can believe that a child dies every 15 seconds from a water-related disease?  Yet, nearly one billion people in the world lack access to clean water, or just under one in six people. While the technorati are Twittering and the political elite are pontificating, almost 40 percent of the global population, or 2.5 billion, lack access to decent sanitation – no toilet, no sink, nothing.

And while nearly 100 different water and sanitation organizations work to tackle these problems, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the number of people living without access to clean water will *rise* to 1.8 billion by 2025. The Worldwatch Institute, a DC-based think tank, attributes this growth due to the effects of pollution, urbanization, climate change, and water scarcity.  Indeed, water seems to be a common denominator for some of the most difficult transnational challenges we face in this young century.

At a time when we are reflecting on the miraculous achievements of Norman Borlaug and turning our gaze toward the hopefulness of the Clinton Global Initiative, we should remember that progress on sanitation has been even slower than the clean water crisis.  According to, this issue attracts only a little over 10 percent of funds available for all water and sanitation programs. 

Almost half a century ago, a young President Kennedy inspired the country to apply its energies and ingenuity to step beyond our planet for the first time in human history.  Twenty years ago, two million people joined hands in peaceful protest to form a 373-mile human chain called the “Baltic Way” across three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - bringing the world’s attention to their oppression under the Soviet Union.  And, more recently, the superhuman athlete, Lance Armstrong, transformed a simple rubber bracelet into a powerful symbol of courage and defiance, enlisting scores of millions of people to join him in the struggle against cancer. 

What will it take for us to follow this example, however it may look, and join together creatively over water and sanitation? We cannot wait for a technology or some other silver bullet to address these problems. We know the crucial link to save these lives as well as accelerate human development, improve local economies, and dramatically increase the quality of life for billions of people around the globe.

There are some intriguing glimpses of what might be possible - charity:water, Akvo,, and The Tap Project all come to mind.  I would confess a bias for a certain brand of bottled water that attempts to educate people on the world water crisis.  But where is the AIDS Ride for water?  What is the Inconvenient Truth that will galvanize people?  What is the initiative that will engage citizenry around the world and mobilize our generation?  

A global Apollo Project on global water is long overdue.  Lets do it. 




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