A stroll in New York City only 150 years ago would have left your shoes covered with human waste.
This was feces literally thrown into the streets from the windows of mansions and middle and working class homes alike. Cities grew dense amidst the industrial revolution and waterborne diseases such as cholera were rampant. Only in the 19th century did people begin to understand germ theory. They soon discovered the link between water, sanitation and disease. And as society began to view such conditions as signs of poor social and environmental conditions, things started to change.
We have forgotten, but March 22 is our chance to remember. Clean water is worth celebrating. When you eliminate preventable death and disease, a whole new world is possible. This is why people all over the world are joining together to celebrate World Water Day (WWD) on March 22.
In India, lives have changed so dramatically that over 20,000 women spend an entire day coming together from slums and villages in Tamil Nadu to make a statement. Because it's not just water -- it's increased income, it's time free from collecting water, it's the chance for children to attend school, it's improved health, safety, privacy, and security. It's a life saved. It's a family preserved. Its an entirely simple act -- some might say, a human right -- that triggers a restoration of dignity and a triumph of possibility.
In the U.S., a remarkable group of U.S.-based organizations have joined forces to raise awareness and call for stronger commitments from governments, the private sector, and US citizens for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives in low-income countries. It's an exciting development because WWD has been under the radar for years, lacking the profile of its big brother, Earth Day. This group has the potential to elevate its stature. Indeed, several important events are planned for March 22 and 23 in Washington, D.C.
In the online world, the ONE Campaign and water.org (full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of water.org) are inviting people to donate their online voice in celebration of water at oneWEEKforWATER.org. The site celebrates the 200 million people who have gained access to safe water in the past ten years.
The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, includes the target to "halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation." In 2000, 1.1 billion people lacked access to safe water. Today, approximately 900 million people, about one in eight, still lack access. At a time when the world population continues to grow, its a meaningful achievement, one whose pace hopefully will quicken in the coming years -- especially as public attention increases and political pressure grows.
Some of this momentum is generated through increased political pressure. However, I personally find greater inspiration in the innovations coming out of the citizen sector. For example, I was blown away by the results of a recent design competition focused on water access hosted at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Earlier this month, Imagine H20 successfully concluded their first worldwide competition to find the best water-related startups -- the winner was an exciting French startup, Fruition Sciences. Kenna, the Ethiopian-born artist and activist, led a delegation up Mount Kilimanjaro for a "Summit on the Summit" to call attention to the world water crisis. charity: water continues to grow, recruiting more celebrities to the cause of clean water and using the web to engage new converts. When seen on their own, these might seem like disconnected events, but I believe these incidents augur a larger trend of public creativity and entrepreneurial energy cohering around this issue.
Indeed, although there are hopeful signs and progress has been made, the World Health Organization reported in 2008 that the water and sanitation crisis claimed more lives through disease than any ongoing armed conflicts currently underway around the world. At a time when attention is focused on the unending tragedies in Darfur or the DRC, we should pause to reflect on this ongoing heartbreak. In fact, over one week's time, nearly 40,000 people die due to preventable waterborne diseases. This is the equivalent to the entire student population of New York University. In one week.
If we can make enough noise for WWD, if we can continue to join together and continue to raise awareness for this cause, if we're successful in getting "water" on the long-term, international agenda, we instead could be saving 40,000 lives a week.
Our progress, opportunities, and growth in the US would not have been possible without our sustained access to clean water and safe sanitation. Water is the essential foundation to healthy societies and functioning markets. We have forgotten, but this is our chance to remember, to take action, and to make a difference in our world today.
So, you're invited to the party. It starts Monday. How will you celebrate water on World Water Day? Moreover, how will you make every day World Water Day?
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