When the world’s religions share just one symbol, it must be pretty important. It blesses and purifies and is the source of all life. That symbol is water. Maybe folks don’t seem to be agreeing on a whole lot these days, but we can all agree that every child deserves a clean, safe glass of water.

Here is where we’re supposed to remind you that 663 million people don’t have access to safe water and 2.4 billion lack the basic dignity and safety of a toilet (that’s a whopping one third of the world’s population.) And we could tell you that this problem causes fifty different diseases and illnesses and fifty percent of undernutrition in children, making it the number one killer of children under age five. It kills more children than malaria, AIDS and TB; more than the horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria; more than Ebola and Zika.

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But forget the numbers. Meet Jordan instead. She volunteered at a small health clinic in Honduras where she befriended a vivacious 9-year-old named Cristian, who loved playing soccer. He was at the clinic with an eye infection caused by a Neglected Tropical Disease, an NTD, spread through unsafe water. But his news was good. His infection was easily treatable.

So when Jordan returned to the health clinic a year later, she was surprised to find Cristian there, now a morose little boy with a tumor that covered his left eye and part of his face. Cristian suffered with this infection until he was 11-years-old. Then he died. He died of complications from a completely treatable problem because his family did not have access to safe water.

Allaman Sidiqui was born in Mali to a mother who has a 1:17 chance of losing her child to sepsis, an infection that’s easily prevented with soap and water. But simple infections like sepsis kill 430,000 newborns every year. One of them was Allaman, on the 15th day of his brief life.

All these two little boys needed was some soap and clean water. When these two unique, unrepeatable gifts of human life were wasted, a part of each of us was also diminished. It begs the question, what divine is honored by a religious symbol that disfigures, stunts and kills thousands of children each day?

Here’s what we really want to say:  Dirty water is the world’s dirty secret – a silent pandemic whose critical role is routinely overlooked. 

The lack of WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene (WASH) is undercutting the good work the public and private sectors are doing around the world:

  • Inside healthcare facilities:  After the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization looked at health care facilities in 54 countries. Almost 40 percent of health care facilities did not have access to safe water; almost 20% did not have even basic sanitation; and 35 percent did not have soap and water.
  • Treating HIV/AIDS:  Immuno-suppressed patients must take anti-retrovirals with filthy water, making them sick and unable to properly absorb the medication.
  • Insuring food security: It’s an important global goal that’s impossible without water security.
  • Educating girls: Want girls to attend school? Then make sure she has the dignity of a safe and private toilet at her school or she’ll likely drop out.

Right now, there is worthy legislation in Congress intended to protect mothers, children and the poorest in the world from illness and disease. But WASH is not adequately incorporated.

Cristian is just one of the one billion adults and 500 million children harmed by NTDs every year. The proposed End Neglected Tropical Diseases Act is not prioritizing access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education, which means we’re curing NTDs with medication rather than preventing them all together. The REACH Act, aimed at protecting maternal/child health, must make access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education a high priority. Each year, 3.3 million infants deaths occur in the first 28 days of life but two-thirds of these deaths could be prevented with proper hygiene, primarily hand-washing with soap.

In a world that desperately needs religion and government to be forces for good, water provides an ideal place to unite. The causes of poverty are intricate and complicated. What’s remarkably simple is the immediate impact and positive multiplier effect of water.

Provide a woman with safe water and a toilet, and educate her on basic hygiene, and we set in motion a cycle where maternal and child health can be secured. Women and girls are no longer beasts of burden hauling water for hours every day, even though that water makes their families sick. Girls get to attend and stay in school. Illness and death are replaced by education, greater productivity, and new economic opportunities that benefit all of us in this global economy.

Americans fund and support access to global WASH [WAter/Sanitation/Hygiene] work through their houses of worship, faith-based and non-governmental organizations. But long-term success is impossible without the funding, leadership and influence of the U.S. government. It’s not just imperative that funding for the Water for the World Act be robust, every global health and development policy and piece of legislation must contain provisions for sustainable clean water and sanitation. Any plan that does not include WASH is guaranteed to fall short of its goals. At a time of tight budgets, this approach is smart, logical and cost-effective. But it’s also a matter of who lives, and who dies. Water is a symbol of life and health, not disease and death. Together we can make water the source of health and life -- for all.

Today is World Water Day #blue4water

McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and networker among innovative Christian leaders. He is a senior fellow with Auburn Seminary, and a board member and leader in Convergence Network and Center for Progressive Renewal. Barnett, a former award-winning network news producer, is a strategic communications consultant to nonprofits, working at the nexus of media, faith and social justice. She is founder of Faiths for Safe Water and Impact Communications.