THE BLOG

The Water Imperative

05/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Water is the most urgent need of the global poor.

In wealthy nations, we drink clean and clear water from a faucet each morning. Not so for the global poor -- where nearly a billion people drink, cook and bathe with dirty water from infested swamps. This unsafe water causes disease and death, while also keeping women from work and children out of school.

On World Water Day this year -- March 22 -- we must take time out to remember the 4,500 children who die each day from a lack of access to clean, safe water.

In rural villages, children walk an average of 3.5 miles every day to fetch water from a smelly mudhole. Over 50 percent of the world's medical clinics are filled with patients who suffer from water-borne illness. If we drill a clean water well, the kids can go to school, and the clinics are less crowded. Clean water access is the very first step -- a foundation for life, health, education and opportunity.

Since I began studying and living the grit of global poverty and economic development years ago, one burning question has consumed me: What is the most I can do as one person?

Of course government and business -- if directed properly -- could both help the global poor in a big way. For leaders in these areas, we must pursue clear property rights and rule of law, while promoting sustainable growth through trade and commerce.

But for those of us who are everyday citizens -- not currently elected leaders or multinational executives -- what is our best response to serve those who need our help the most?

In the global poverty dialogue, there are policy experts who debate the merits of various interventions -- vitamins, food, medicine, infrastructure. Critics of water wells argue that some water projects fail, fall out of use, or are not sufficient in themselves.

Their critiques are important. We must develop 'best practices' from successful water projects (which are the vast majority). Further, we must create integrated solutions that create impact through a multi-faceted approach.

In a few years, we will see highly innovative rural projects that center on clean water access while transforming the entire village. Effective charities can build many other capacities around a water well -- training the community in well maintenance and repair, teaching hygiene and sanitation and providing needed vitamins and medicine.

Among other big players, the Gates Foundation is investing heavily each year into building water and sanitation projects -- as well as discovering ways that the most effective solutions can be replicated and scaled up to serve hundreds of millions globally.

What's incredible is that while Gates gives away a few billion dollars each year, the generosity of individual Americans is nearly 100 times larger -- some $230 billion in annual charity comes from all the 'little guys' rather than corporate or foundation grants.

What does this mean for us? Thoughtful public giving can change the world many times faster than the biggest headline donors. We are in fact 'the change' for the world -- and it is our duty to become informed global philanthropists.

It is up to us to change lives with clean water. For the price of lunch -- only $10 -- I can give one person access to clean water for a lifetime. If just one in ten Americans gave $150 to clean water, we could solve half of the most urgent crisis of the global poor -- giving clean water to 500 million people.

To create real global change, informed citizens must find excellent solutions and spread the word. Will you be the one in 10 to change lives?

Water is the most urgent need of the global poor. In memory of the thousands who die each day from unsafe water, please seek out a great water charity, spread the word, and change lives today.