Water and the Angel of Death

Few scenes in film are more memorable than the famous parting of the Red Sea, a young Charlton Heston at the helm, in the 1956 Academy Award-winning film The Ten Commandments. Around Passover and Easter each year, this magical celluloid moment annually depicts the ability of water to save lives, and take lives, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.

The magic of special effects aside, if the daily destruction and struggles caused by water were illustrated so graphically in real life as it is in film, would more of us pay attention to the deadly role water plays in millions of lives? More children die from illnesses and disease caused by the lack of safe water and sanitation than war, or TB, AIDS and malaria combined. The Angel of Death doesn’t pass over 4000 children every day – that’s the number who die from water-related disease, every day. Almost a billion people don’t have safe water and 2.5 billion don’t have access to the safety and dignity of sanitation.

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Yet this same water, this source of life and death, takes on an almost sacred role in faith. From Baptism to funeral rites, it is the singular symbol shared by every world religion. We look to water to cleanse and purify and honor. But do we honor God with every day that passes and another 4000 children are lost to this world?

Sometimes you hear a story and it sticks with you. So much so that you know you are obligated to honor it by retelling. When I first heard Ida’s story, it was all the more shocking because the cure, in this case, would have cost just 30 cents a day. Ida’s was a preventable death. She was a 29-year-old mother from the African nation of Malawi; she suffered from late-stage schistosomiasis. Also known as “snail fever,” it is among a list of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) contracted through contact with infested water. Ida’s village had no access to safe water and sanitation, so every day she trudged to the local pond to haul contaminated water back to her family. Water-borne parasites entered through her shoeless feet. They multiplied inside her body, and very slowly and painfully, began destroying her organs. Ida had a child, a two-year-old little boy named Samuel. Because she was so weakened, when she could no longer produce milk to feed her son, she was forced to fill her hungry son’s belly with the only available resource she had – the contaminated pond water that bred the parasites that were slowly killing her.

NTDs are so widespread that every year they impact 1.4 billion people, of which a third are children. When they don’t kill they cause blindness, scarring, debilitating swelling, and painful open sores. Children with NTDs miss school. Parents are so debilitated they can’t work or care for their children. Children are orphaned; poverty is entrenched; whole communities are devastated. From the biblical days of leprosy to Onchocerciasis, also known as “river blindness”, those most often affected by NTDs are the poorest and most vulnerable populations living in remote areas, urban slums or conflict zones. NTDs persist under conditions of poverty, and the lack of reliable statistics and unpronounceable names have hampered efforts to bring them out of the shadows.

One film crew did, however. Ida’s story was caught on camera by a BBC film crew. The BBC crew put down their camera and took Ida to a hospital. But it was too late. She died a few weeks later, as did her son Samuel, shortly after her.

To understand this tragedy, we must multiply Ida’s and Samuel’s deaths by millions of people every year who die from preventable and treatable diseases. Even our pets have access to some of the drugs and the clean water that would make a difference to millions around the globe. Ida and Samuel could have been cured in a matter of weeks for the change in our pockets.

Her suffering certainly conveys the humane necessity of access to safe water and sanitation. But without safe water and sanitation, a whole host of global ills cannot be cured -- malnutrition, poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality. Not even peace can be achieved when some have and others don’t have something as basic to life as water.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” [Matthew 25:35] Human existence is about much more than water, but it is never about less. Water has the power to transform. So do we. Which means water, the source of all life, must be more than a symbol in our faiths. It must be a call-to-action. Access to safe water is an Exodus from a lifecycle of poverty and sickness. There is no better time than now, with spring rains and renewal, Passover’s flight to freedom, Lent’s reflection and sacrifice, and Easter’s celebration, to ask ourselves if we have the moral will and vision to make safe water the source of hope and life for all.

From pulpit to pew, please add your voice:

  1. Increase awareness of the global water crisis
  2. Support your faith’s water/sanitation development and foreign aid work
  3. Call on Congress to pass the Water for the World Act which targets water development work where it’s needed most, at no additional cost

For information about how to easily get our congregations and youth involved:

www.faithsforsafewater.org;

www.h2oforlifeschools.org

http://www.WASHAdvocates.org

Moss is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and a cultural critic.