THE BLOG
08/27/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

When it Comes to Waterworks, Congress Works!

Faiths for Safe Water

Once you hear Jordan's story, you won't forget it.

Jordan is a young American radiologist who traveled to the outskirts of Honduras' capital city on a mission trip with her church college group. She was there to assist with much needed basic medical services at a community center called Campamento Betel (Camp Betel). Soon after her arrival she bonded with a young friend and patient, a full-of-life 9-year-old boy who enjoyed soccer and laughing with the other children of Camp Betel.

The boy had come to the medical clinic because an infection had spread to his left eye. Jordan and her team diagnosed what's called a Neglected Tropical Disease. NTDs, often caused by lack of clean water and poor sanitation, are so widespread that they impact 1.4 billion people, 500 million are children. The doctors prescribed a course of treatment for the boy, the key to which was a steady routine of hand and face washing with clean water.

A year later Jordan returned to Camp Betel for a second tour with the clinic. She was surprised to see her young friend back at the clinic. The infection had grown and now formed a tumor over his left eye and part of his face. The once cheerful child was morose, dark, and distant.

Despite following doctor's orders, his parents were shocked that their son's condition had worsened. The doctors were not.

Water around Camp Betel is unsafe. Like one sixth of the world's population, his family has neither safe water nor appropriate sanitation. For them, water -- the foundation of life -- is a disease-ridden gateway to illness. The World Health Organization lists 25 dangerous diseases as "water-related," resulting in somewhere between three to six million deaths each year, mostly affecting children. Almost 800 million people have no safe drinking water and an astounding 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation worldwide. But unlike so many complex problems, sustainable solutions to the global water crisis really are within our reach. We have the technology. We need the leadership. This past week we may have seen just that.

Recognizing the lifesaving impact of our government's global WASH programs [Water/Sanitation/Hygiene], it appears political squabbling may be drying up this hot summer, at least when it comes to water.

With bipartisan support, the Senate recently voted to increase WASH foreign aid funding by 30 percent. This increase would bring sustainable solutions to another million people. Now a bipartisan group of 15 House members is introducing the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2013, a bill that focuses on increasing efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency in our current WASH programs without spending a penny more. The same day last week, Congress held a public hearing on "The Impact of U.S. Water Programs on Global Health" that had at least one Congressman near tears as he thanked organizations for the hard work being done in the field.

Perhaps Congress is starting to understand that we can curtail malnutrition, prevent disease, and reduce poverty. We can support new methods of sustainable farming; promote girls' education and gender equality. But it all depends on the foundation of one thing: access to safe water and sanitation.

All these Congressional good intentions are only paper until budgets and legislation are signed into law. If our much-maligned Congress is up to the task of expanding safe water and sanitation to more families around the world, then the religious community certainly should be there in support. When so many members of Congress say they speak from a place of strong faith, clergy and congregations have an influential role to play. Water is the singular symbol shared by every faith. It is the source of all life, the means for blessing, baptism and purification. The Bible names water 722 times. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me water to drink..." (Matthew 25:35).

Our faiths challenge us to see in a little Honduran boy who loved soccer, and whose name just happens to be Cristian, the human face of justice. Cristian shows us there is still much work to be done. Because even though WASH work saves millions of children, it did not reach Cristian. He died of complications from a treatable disease simply because he did not have access to safe water. He was 11-years-old.

Cristian's death is an injustice: to him, to his parents and community, and to the young doctor who had to see him die. It's also a vicious reminder that the lack of safe water and sanitation has become the leading killer of children, taking over 8,000 young lives every single day.

Perhaps it's even fair to say that part of our divinity also died along with Cristian -- and each of us was diminished just a bit, too, as that unique, unrepeatable gift of human life was wasted.

God asks us to face injustice and combat wrong. "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Which means it's unconscionable for us as people of faith to take for granted our access to safe water and sanitation while a solvable crisis continues to kill.

Water is fundamental to our Scriptures and our futures. There remains much good work to be done and right now we are seeing a rare moment in Congress in which to do it. Never has your voice and your heart been more critical. Tell Congress to keep up this good work by passing the Water for the World Act and the FY 14 funding recommendation of $405 million for global water projects.

Here's how:

Take action here.

Email Congress here.

Get your congregations involved in WASH click here.

To learn more about Camp Betel: click here and here.

THE AUTHORS:

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Director, Center for Interreligious Understanding (US); Director, The Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University The Angelicum (Rome)

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

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

Imam Mohamed Magid, President, Islamic Society of North America and
Executive Director, All Dulles Area Muslim Society

The Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church

Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director, GreenFaith

Dr. Anthony Cernera, former President, Sacred Heart University and the International Federation of Catholic Universities; now CEO of the Center for Interreligious Understanding