Mark Twain is believed to have once said, “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” He may have been on to something. Historically, water has been at the center of much of this world’s conflict and suffering. Here in the United States, it’s hard for many of us to imagine a life without access to clean water, because when we turn on the tap, clean water flows out – it’s that easy. However, for more than 800 million people around the world, accessing clean water is a dangerous daily struggle.
Grace is a five-year-old little girl who lives in Eastern Uganda. When we think about kids Grace’s age, we imagine a carefree world filled with hours of playtime or our first reading lessons. But for Grace and her three-year-old sister, life is not that simple. Instead, every day as the sun begins to rise, they start the seven-mile round trip journey to the nearest borehole in search of clean water.
The time-consuming journey often keeps Grace out of school. This is not uncommon for women and young girls in the developing world. According to UNICEF, nearly 200 million hours are spent every day just to find clean water. This search for clean water severely limits the futures of these women and girls, denying them opportunities outside of the household and trapping families in a cycle of poverty.
Perhaps worse, the arduous trek for clean water can also be dangerous. Grace’s family constantly fears that she will meet the fate of other young girls from the village: being kidnapped or sexually abused by the men who control the well. To avoid these hazards, Grace and her family often settle for a shorter walk to dirty swamp water. Throughout the world, one in 13 people have no choice but to drink this kind of polluted water, putting themselves at risk of contracting terrible diseases. Every two minutes a child under the age of 5 dies from illnesses related to poor water and sanitation—amounting to nearly 300,000 child deaths a year—while many more suffer from severe malnutrition. Grace has already had typhoid and worms, and the family fears her little sister has malaria. But the local clinic doesn’t have running water either, a far too common occurrence in Africa where nearly half the medical facilities lack a water source.
Too many people around the globe face the same struggles as Grace and her family for clean water. Without the life-giving power of water, safe sanitation and hygiene in homes, schools, and hospitals is impossible. As many as 2.3 billion people lack a decent toilet and are forced to go to the bathroom outdoors. This further contaminates sources of drinking water, spreading dysentery. Access to clean drinking water is simply not enough: without safe sanitation and good hygiene practices, the problems associated with water scarcity will never be solved.
Water scarcity not only affects individuals and communities – it is directly tied to global stability and even U.S. national security. It is no coincidence that some of the most volatile regions in the world are also those that lack water security. From Nigeria and Somalia to Iraq and Yemen, terrorist groups often seize water infrastructure to use as leverage or exploit grievances that stem from water scarcity. Both Boko Haram and ISIS will dig boreholes to provide water to local communities, not out of goodwill but as a common recruiting tactic. A strategy to combat terrorist groups around the world requires more than just military action. It must address the necessities of a society, such as secure access to clean water.
That is exactly why my colleague Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerSenate candidate Gary Chambers discusses his opposition to criminalizing marijuana Lobbying world Congress to take up marijuana reform this spring MORE and I introduced the Water for the World Act which became law in 2014 and made it U.S. policy to prioritize this crucial issue through devising and implementing a comprehensive inter-agency global water strategy. By addressing this one fundamental requirement for human life, we can save lives and improve the world. As the wealthiest and most innovative nation on Earth, solutions are within our reach. The United States must act as a global leader, setting an example by prioritizing water, sanitation, and hygiene access. We can do this by prioritizing assistance to countries in the greatest need and ensuring that the legally mandated water office that already exists in USAID is appropriately funded and preserved during the agency’s redesign.
Today, 1.4 billion more people have access to clean water than they did in 2000. This means, is 1.4 billion lives have been saved or fundamentally improved. With our God-given resources, it is our moral duty to see that no one must suffer because of lack of water. As we inch closer to achieving universal clean water access, maybe one day, we can finally take the fighting out of Mark Twain’s famous quote, and instead say “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for life.”
And that’s just the way it is.
Poe is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee.