Water is the singular symbol shared by every world religion; it cleanses and purifies. Water connects us. Not just as a symbol used in our religious rites; water is key to sustaining life. The concern for human life, and the preservation of a dignified life, is what religion is supposed to be. Often quoted, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” [Isaiah 58:7]
Water, our shared symbol, is a daily and deadly reality for approximately 800 million people who live without access to safe water and 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. The impact on health is staggering: At any given time, half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases. Pictures of distended little bellies are all too familiar, but when it comes to under-nutrition, 50% is due to a lack of safe water. More children under age five die from water-related diarrhea and pneumonia than malaria, AIDS, and TB combined.
Water is a also women’s burden: Around the world women spend upwards of 6 hours collecting water daily, hauling 40+ pound jerry cans for miles. It breaks down their bodies. Girls miss school to help their mothers bear the heavy burden. When there are no gender appropriate sanitation facilities to take care of their personal needs, girls often quit school all together. The cycle of poverty continues and violence often intervenes. Women and girls are attacked and raped, just trying to find a bit of privacy to relieve themselves.
Imagine where the U.S. would be if our country still had filthy water flowing from our taps and sewage flowing in our streets. The world water crisis is the central problem to health, nutrition, poverty, gender equality, even negotiated peace. It is contrary to religion. But safe water and access to sanitation is the greatest asset to improving health, development and poverty alleviation. The know-how and technology exists. What’s missing is the sense of urgency and leadership.
American development work - both public and private -- brings great hope around the globe. For example, around the world we make great strides fighting malaria; but poor sanitation increases breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. We’ve seen great success with HIV/AIDS patients when they get the anti-retroviral drugs they need to sustain life; but already immune-suppressed, they must take these drugs with disease-causing water. Americans should be heartened by our accomplishments but also reminded that more must be done.
Current U.S. government funding for global water and sanitation development amounts to less than two one-hundredths of a percent of our federal budget. Yet for every US dollar invested in safe water and sanitation, there’s an economic return of $4 or more.
We are inspired by young and dedicated global citizens like those at H2O for Life -- a wonderful service-learning project that connects American students to schools around the world in need of water and sanitation. When H2O for Life worked with Our Lady of Feast School in Columbus, Ohio, the students learned about the global water crisis and decided to help a girls’ school in faraway Afghanistan. With H2O for Life’s assistance, they raised funds to replace the school’s broken pump with a solar powered water pump. The Afghan girls now have clean fresh water and spend a lot more time healthy and in school. The project caught the attention of an American soldier from Columbus, stationed there. You can see his heartwarming video and some delighted schoolgirls whose lives have been changed.
Human existence is about much more than water, but never about less. Water has the power to transform. So do we. We possess some of the most powerful collective voices in the world. Please add your voice in support of your faith’s development work and add your vote in support of the Water for the World Act, which targets water and sanitation development work where it’s needed most, at no additional cost.
“From water We have created all living things,” it says in the Koran [21:30], but we don’t honor God when 4000 children die every day from it. Amos 5:24 says, “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” If water doesn’t flow, we must ask, can justice?
Together we have a sacred opportunity to impact hundreds of millions of lives and be a monumental example of multi-faith cooperation at its best. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…” [Matthew 25:35] Together we can make water a source of health and life, for all.
Bemporad is executive director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding (U.S.) and director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at The Angelicum Pontifical University (Rome). He is global expert in interreligious dialogue and co-founder of Faiths for Safe Water. Antepli, of Duke University, is one of only 11 fulltime Muslim university chaplains in the U.S. Educated in his native Turkey,he is an international leader in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Kowalski, is the 9th and current dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City and a leading figure in the Episcopal Church.