No 77 October 2007.5
A glass of water could tell a whole story. Like the glass Dunstan Ddamulira was offered recently in the Ugandan countryside. "In my country [Uganda]," Ddamulira says, "you can't be refused water to drink. So I stopped by at this house and asked for a glass of water. A girl gave it to me. It was 50 percent mud." And to prove what he says, he shows a picture he took with his cell phone. It is 50 percent mud.
That glass of muddy water was offered to Ddamulira in Bijaba, a village of some 150 families in central Uganda. The village is on the top of a hill. In the rainy season, villagers must fetch water from a water hole they dug to collect run-off rainwater. In the dry season, they must go to a valley some eight kilometres away to find water.
What Bijaba's villagers have to go through is a daily experience for some 1,1 billion people on this planet. They do not have access to sufficient, or safe, water to drink and to satisfy their domestic needs. As a consequence of this and of the lack of adequate sanitation, about 2 million people die every year. Most of them are children.
Many more people suffer on a daily basis from the lack of water. The lack means that, in some countries, meeting the family water needs can take five hours of work per day - and women and girls will be those shouldering most of this burden. And of course, there are also the water-related diseases, and the hindrance to education that goes hand in hand with sickness and the efforts involved in fetching water.
More than 80% of the people affected by the dearth of water live in rural areas. Two-thirds of them are in Asia. Over 40% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa falls within this group. As with many other situations of injustice, exploitation and deprivation, the poorest are those most affected. "The lack of water pushes people into the vicious cycle of poverty," Ddamulira says.
Tackling the causes
Why this situation? "In Uganda," says Ddamulira, "there is a combination of factors: insufficient funding, uneven distribution, lack of technology appropriate to rural areas, government corruption." He works with the Agency for Cooperation and Research for Development, which supports water supply and sanitation projects, in addition to awareness-raising and training, with a focus on women.
For Moshe Tsehlo from Lesotho, the question of governance is one of the major root causes. In his country, five dams allow the government to sell water to South Africa. What happens to the income produced is a mystery, he says, due to the government's lack of transparency. While the water sources are in rural areas, the latter are not a government priority when it comes to water supply. As a consequence, subsistence agriculture suffers because of the lack of irrigation, and the affected people migrate from villages to cities.
Tsehlo is Lesotho's coordinator of Participatory Ecological Land Use Management, an organization that works on advocacy as well as on supporting small water collection, irrigation and bottling projects. "At the national level, our advocacy aims to amend the constitution so as to include access to water as a human right," he says. "We need the legal framework to block the privatization of water in our country," he adds.
Ddamulira and Tsehlo were participating in the 20-25 January World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. So were their partners: representatives Danuta Sacher, head of the policy and campaigns department at Bread for the World (Germany), and Asa Elfstrom, senior advisor on water and development of the Church of Sweden.
For Sacher, the water plight of so many people around the world is a clear expression of the way the poor are marginalized. "Governments don't care for the poor. Neither do they care for the long-term water cycle," she says. "They are only able to look at the issue with business eyes, and miss the full picture."
Sacher's organization has been campaigning for the right to water for the past four years, and she doesn't hesitate to point a finger at the World Bank. "Due to its influence on the definition of national policies and its message hailing privatization as 'the' solution, we have lost perhaps ten years," she asserts.
For the Church of Sweden, which works with partners on three continents and some 30 countries, the water issue will be a priority for the next three years, says Elfstrom. This year it will be the subject of the church's fund-raising campaign during Lent.
Speaking out ecumenically
The four organizations represented by Ddamulira, Tsehlo, Sacher and Elfstrom are members of the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN), an initiative hosted by the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The EWN is part of the 2007 global ecumenical coalition at the WSF, also led by the WCC. The network brings together concerned churches, organizations and movements which have joined efforts to protect and implement people's right to access water around the world, and to make sure that a common Christian witness on water issues is heard in the global debate.
It promotes community-based initiatives and solutions, and advocates for water to be considered a human right in addition to being a gift of God. It also seeks to raise the awareness of the churches on the urgency of the concern.
Among the many ideas that the EWN's organizations are bringing home from Nairobi is a proposal to document cases of violations of the right to water. They are also inviting other organizations to join a "Blue October" initiative by campaigning for water rights - each organization with its own focus - for a week in October.
It is "right to speak out and to act when the life-giving water is pervasively and systematically under threat," a WCC Assembly statement, "Water for Life", said last year. WSF participants are doing just that.
By Juan Michel (*)
(*) Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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