As nearly any guide book or travel magazine will tell you, my home country of Madagascar is indescribably beautiful. It's heaven on earth for anyone who loves the outdoors, with a wealth of breathtaking landscapes. Within one island, we have rain forests, deserts, beaches and barrier reefs -- and all of the wildlife pertaining to them.
Many people in the U.S. would jump at the opportunity to visit such an idyllic destination, and rightly so. However, despite the richness of natural beauty, Madagascar remains remarkably poor. Many Malagasy people are denied the basic opportunities that most Americans take for granted. Over half of the populationlives without access to safe drinking water, and 86 percent do not have access to a toilet.
Growing up, I thought it was normal to be sick. In my small village outside of the capital city of Antananarivo, someone was always missing school because of painful stomach aches or diarrhea. There were a few pit latrines in my village, but none at my school. Everyone went in the bamboo behind the school buildings. That was just the way it was.
Every morning before school, I would go to collect water for my family from a dirty water source. We knew that it was unsafe to drink, but it was the only option that we had. Our school didn't have any water at all, so we often went five or six hours without drinking anything. At the time, it all seemed perfectly normal.
I am convinced that the most powerful, life-changing gift of all is the gift of opportunity. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to complete my education and embark on a fulfilling career. This year, as a Communications Support Officer for WaterAid, I got yet another incredible opportunity: the chance to travel outside of Madagascar for the very first time.
Never could I have imagined the huge differences between life in Madagascar and life in England. In the same way that I never really thought twice about not having clean water and a toilet while growing up; people in London don't think twice about having it. That is just the way it is. Imagine, though, if poor communities had that same gift, that same opportunity!
When I arrived in the U.K., the River Thames was the first thing that caught my eye. On my way to and from work each day at WaterAid's London office, I walked along its banks and was struck by the contrast between this iconic river and the one that I know best -- the Ipoka River in Antananarivo.
While still a working river used for shipping, the Thames is a place of leisure for native Londoners and visitors alike. Back in Antananarivo, people also flock to the river, but for very different reasons. Its banks are lined -- not with restaurants or art galleries -- but with brightly colored laundry spread out to dry in the sun.
With no reliable water supplies at home, people come to the Ikopa River every day of the week to collect water, wash clothes or bathe while buffalo drink and graze on its banks. Like the Thames, the atmosphere along the Ikopa is lively, with children laughing and splashing in the water and women chatting with friends and family as they do their chores.
But the risk of deadly water-related diseases always casts a shadow over the happy scene. It's not uncommon for pit latrines to be emptied into the same waters being used to wash clothes and plates. The threat of disease is ever-present. In Madagascar, over 4,000 children die from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation each and every year.
When I returned home from London, my wife asked me about the trip. How could I possibly explain to her what I had seen? How could I begin to describe the underground subways, the working sewage systems, and how they had made the River Thames such a beautiful place to be? In the 19th century the Thames was also polluted with human waste; cholera and typhoid ran rife in London slums. But large-scale investment in safe water supplies and sewers has all but banished water-related diseases to the history books in London.
"We're far away from them, honey," was all that I could say.
Working at WaterAid, I know that we are not the only country facing these challenges. I often remind myself that even the biggest, most famous cities in the world faced the same challenges in the past that we do in Antananarivo today. I dream of the day when we too can take safe water and sanitation for granted. When fewer kids die from preventable water-related diseases, girls can stay in school and parents are able to make the most of their working days. I dream of the day when stomach aches and diarrhea will be understood as a sign of sickness instead of the everyday 'normal.'
You can help make it happen. Whether it's by telling your US representative that you support the Water for the World Act, rallying this #GivingTuesday to support clean water programs, or simply by learning moreabout the issue, we all have a role to play. I am convinced that we'll get to that new "normal." And what a golden gift that opportunity will be when we do.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and CyberMonday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll be featuring posts from InterAction partners all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here. For more information about InterAction, visit here. To see what WaterAid is doing for #GivingTuesday, click here.
And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org