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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 19, 2009

Let go of the bottle
Join the battle for clean water in poor places

Illustration by Forest Byrd.

We live in a rich nation. It is easy to insulate ourselves. We were struck on Sunday to hear the stern words of Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served as seventh secretary-general of the United Nations. At the turn of this millennium, he outlined eight goals to relieve poverty and the suffering that comes with it.

It is fully in our power to eradicate poverty and hunger by 2015, he said, but only if every one, rich and poor alike, act.

“If the goals are not met,” he said, “we will all be poorer and less secure.”

Three fifths of that time has passed.

Kofi Annan’s words came to us through a documentary, Water First, screened at the Madison Theatre in Albany. Amy Hart made the film about Charles Banda, an African man who started the Freshwater Project in 1995 to set up wells for clean water in his native Malawi.

The crowd at the theater on Sunday was already committed to the cause of clean water.  The rest of us need to understand why it is essential. Bob Mohr, a retired art publisher and member of the Guilderland Rotary, was in the audience. He is president of Pure Water of the World, which started as a Rotary project in Brattleboro, Vt. and grew to be a separate, not-for-profit organization.

Mohr got together with Hart after seeing Water First at the Rensselaerville Institute a year-and-a-half ago. Last week, they worked out an agreement so that contributions may be made to Pure Water for Banda’s Freshwater Project.

While Pure Water had concentrated on South America and Central America, this will be its first foray into Africa. “We’re hoping to learn from Charles’s project,” said Mohr. “It’s a different skill set.”

The projects in South and Central America have focused on filter systems for individual households while Banda’s project sets up wells and latrines for community use. Both projects focus on hygiene education.

“In the past decade,” said Mohr, “if you count all the deaths from all the wars, from all the natural disasters — the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the floods — and all the accidents, it doesn’t equal the number of people who die in one year from water-borne diseases. They kill 5,000 to 6,000 a day.”

That’s why he and those on the Pure Water board of directors work 30 or 40 hours a week, without pay. They want to make a difference.

Although our government passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act in 2005, as an amendment to the half-century-old Foreign Aid Act, most of the monies never make it abroad, said Mohr.  “The trickle down is a small trickle,” he said. “Our government needs to find a more effective delivery system.”

In a report this year to Congress on the Simon Water for the Poor Act, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton writes, “Perhaps no two issues are more important to human health, economic development, and peace and security than basic sanitation and access to sustainable supplies of water.”

She says that she has witnessed this first-hand. “Without reliable supplies of clean water,” writes the secretary of state, “people cannot live, farmers cannot grow crops, and the environment on which we all depend cannot survive. Without proper sanitation, human health and dignity suffer, and the environment and water supplies often become contaminated.

“Together, we must work to ensure that no child dies from a preventable water-related disease, that no girl fears going to school for lack of access to a separate toilet, that no woman walks six kilometers to collect water for her family, and that no war is ever fought over water.”

But, if most of our tax money isn’t getting to the places that need the water and sanitation, we, as citizens, must push for change in the delivery system. With tough economic times at home, individuals, non-governmental organizations, church groups, and even school groups have taken the initiative to start solving these problems.

The lesson we learned this week is that individuals can make a difference.

Charles Banda is a hero to the kids at Farnsworth Middle School. They applauded him loud and long at an assembly on Monday morning. They stamped their feet until the walls seemed to reverberate. Although his life has been threatened, Banda tirelessly continues his work. “I have chosen to die for my people so that they get the clean water,” he has said.

Banda humbly accepted the Farnsworth students’ accolades on Monday, turning the tables to thank them for making a difference. Farnsworth raised $6,000 to pay for a well and latrines in a rural Malawian village.

“You can make me cry,” Banda told them. “I didn’t think people out here are thinking about children in Malawi. I must salute you.”

The Farnsworth students apparently have a better grasp of Kofi Annan’s directive than most of us — they understand we are all part of one world.

Banda also credited the two women who linked him to the Farnsworth students — Hart, who told his story in a compelling film, and Farnsworth teacher Jean Quattrocchi who saw the film. “It moved her spirit,” he said. “She shared that with her students.”

We’ve written about Hart’s film and the Farnsworth assembly in great detail this week in hopes of inspiring our readers to join the battle. Our president, in his inaugural address, told the people of poor nations, “We pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

Each of us should do our part. We might not devote the hours that Mohr does to the cause, or we might not have the expertise that Hart has. But next time we think about buying bottled water, for instance, we could put that money aside and make a contribution instead to Pure Water; it’s online at purewaterfortheworld.org.

Americans, after all, throw away an estimated 60 million plastic water bottles a day; each bottle takes three times as much water to make as it holds, and millions of gallons of fuel are wasted transporting the bottled water, not to mention the greenhouse gases produced from manufacturing the plastic.

“Bottled water is to tap water what the automobile was to public transportation,” Amy Hart told us two years ago when she first screened her film locally. “We used to depend on trains and buses, and they got us there, and they were efficient, and they were good for the environment because we shared the fuel that it took to transport us. Now, we’re drinking out of single plastic bottles instead of out of a tap.”

She concluded, “We all have to think about the effect on the planet. There’s only one.”

Jean Quattrocchi said to her students when they raised $6,000 for the well in Malawi, “Have you ever saved a life before? Well, now you have.”

She also told them something on Monday that we should all heed: You’re never too small or too young to make a difference.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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