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A Sermon for Water

Posted: 03/16/2012 7:53 am

Authors' note: Faiths for Safe Water is a project that seeks to unite all faiths around the singular religious symbol shared by all: Water. On March 17 at the historic Riverside Church in New York City, the faiths will gather for an informative and entertaining opportunity to learn more about this No. 1 global health crisis and what they can do about it. For more information: FaithsForSafeWater.org.

We don't honor God when 4,500 children die every day -- but they do -- from the lack of something so simple, each of us takes it for granted: a safe glass of water.

Four thousand five hundred children -- that's one every 20 seconds, a little life extinguished.

While the last couple of years have seen an increase in awareness about the global water crisis, it's still the No. 1 killer of children around the globe. Safe water and sanitation remains the greatest under-recognized global humanitarian crisis we face and its impact is staggering. It's the world's dirty secret.

Almost a billion people do not have access to safe water globally and 2.5 billion lack the dignity of basic sanitation. This lack of access translates into more stunning numbers:

  • 50 percent of all malnutrition is due to the lack of safe water and sanitation

  • As is 80 percent of all disease

  • Half of the world's hospital beds are filled by patients suffering from water-borne diseases

  • This leading killer of children under five kills more children than malaria, AIDS and TB combined

  • The result is a catastrophic 2 million, mostly preventable deaths, every year.

We fight malaria but poor sanitation increases breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We spend millions making sure HIV/AIDS patients get the anti-retroviral drugs they need, but they take these drugs with disease-ridden water.

Current U.S. funding for water and sanitation development amounts to less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the federal budget. Yet for every dollar invested, there's an economic return of $8.

With all the good work the faiths do, from malnutrition to malaria, it's all being undercut by the overarching absence of clean water and sanitation. Not prioritizing the global water crisis defies logic. It prevents productivity, increases poverty and inequality for women.

Water is a woman's burden. Women spend 200 million hours, every day, hauling water. It's nearly impossible to wrap your head around this kind of hard labor. Some spend up to 60 percent of their day, which takes them away from caring for their children or earning additional income for their families. Their bodies quite literally break down. These jerry cans are 40+ pounds and women haul them for miles. Girls are denied education when they leave school to help their mothers with this burden; or when there are no gender appropriate facilities to take care of their personal needs. And it's dangerous work, walking along desolate paths or seeking privacy to take care of one's needs. Just around Christmas last year, two sisters aged 16 and 21, from a rural village in India, went to a nearby field in the early morning hours to relieve themselves. There they were held at gunpoint and gang-raped by three men.

Here is perhaps the greatest shame of all: This problem is solvable. Secular and non secular water development fieldwork is happening all around the world. But these projects need dramatically ramped up and far wider, sustained support.

Let's put a face on all these numbers -- 261 faces in fact...

They're the students at the Ndururi Primary School in Northern Kenya. During the rainy season, they had rainwater but had no safe storage system and in the dry season, they often had to walk three kilometers each day to fetch water from a polluted stream. The school had sub-standard pit latrines and no clean water to wash their hands, which resulted in frequent bouts of illness.

Eight thousand miles away on a Sunday school field trip, eight middle school and 20 high school students from Kansas learned about the world's water crisis and decided to do something about it. With guidance from a unique nonprofit called H2O for Life, which partners U.S. schools with schools around the globe, these students came up with some clever ideas to help. From sending home empty water bottles with church members -- challenging each person to drop a nickel in the bottle each time they used water, especially each time they flushed a toilet -- to auctioning off a donated toilet from a local plumber, these industrious kids raised $6,950. The implementing NGOs match student funds 100 percent, and $13,500 later, a lot has changed for the kids of Ndururi Primary School.

They have roofs and gutters on the school to capture rainwater that goes through bio-sand filters and into a rainwater catchment tank. Boys and girls now have four separate latrines each, plus hand-washing stations with soap. Teachers note a dramatic increase in attendance due to decreased illness, and lots more time in class because students no longer have to walk long distances mid day to fetch water. The school's improvements have lead to water and sanitation improvements in the students' homes and hand-washing facilities throughout the community as students shared their educational awareness about the importance of sanitation with their families.

As for the American kids -- they've learned first-hand that they really can impact the world. Abby, a middle school student, said, ""It blows my mind to think that I have saved lives. It always seemed like that only happened in books, or with someone who was famous. Now I can say I've saved lives." These will be the next generation of civic and maybe even faith leaders.

So why is this crisis still so enormous and development work only a drop in the bucket? Because what's missing is not the know-how or technology, and certainly not the need; it's the sense of urgency and prioritization. Who better to take the lead than the religions? Water is a central shared symbol among every world religion. Water cleanses the body, and by extension purifies it, and these qualities confer a highly symbolic, even sacred, status to water in religion. Human existence is about much more than water, but never about less. From birth until death, the faiths share this recognition in ritual, symbol and need.

Here's an acronym you need to know: "WASH." WASH stands for WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene. It's the world's religions that can and must make "WASH" a household word and push for prioritizing WASH development.

Religious water is never neutral and passive and no longer can we be. It has powers and capacities to transform this world, and so do we. We possess some of the most powerful collective voices in the world. We need to unite, educate and advocate around WASH. This is interfaith at its life-giving best.

Certainly, in today's day and age, no child should ever die for lack of a safe glass of water and a toilet. Together we have a sacred opportunity to bring life to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. No, we don't honor God by allowing 4,500 children to die every day, but together we can accomplish greatness -- by making water a source of life and health, for all.

At this time of spring rains and renewal, in celebration of World Water Day on March 22, there is no better time to get started. Join with Faiths for Safe Water for free ideas and updates.

Faiths for Safe Water leadership:

  • Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Executive Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey) and Professor, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Rome)

  • The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (New York)

  • The Most Reverend Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Church of America and past president National Council of Churches (Washington, DC)

  • Imam Syed Rafiq Naqvi and Mrs. Anjum Naqvi, Chairman, Islamic Information Center (Washington, DC)

  • Leila Muhammad, African-American Muslim Church, Church leader and daughter of W.D. Muhammad (Chicago)

  • Father Dennis McManus, Georgetown University and advisor to Cardinal Dolan (Washington, DC and New York)

  • Rinchen Dharlo, Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of the Americas and President of the Tibet Fund (New York)

  • The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President, Auburn Seminary