Water, water everywhere

Posted on March 1, 2014

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Here in Australia, the government and newspapers are just waking up to another drought. Farmers have been watching the edges of their soil crack and wrinkle for months, wringing their hands in the wait for some decent rain. But now the headlines have assured the rest of us it’s real, and so the politicians are nodding their heads in agreement, proclaiming it’s dry and getting drier. And all the while, the people most affected continue to wait for a bit of help, or at least another shower of rain to make it through a little longer.

It’s a strange state of affairs to return to. I’ve just been in northern India, and in that part of the world the Ganges river, or one of its tributaries, is never far away. Water, water everywhere – goes Coleridge’s poem nor any drop to drink. In India, they’ve got the opposite problem to us – too much water, too many people, too much contamination. But we share similar types of politicians proclaiming problems and making promises noone believes they’ll keep.

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Water in India, particularly the river Ganges, is considered a source of holiness. Hindu mythology says that the Ganga flows from the matted hair of the Shiva, god of creation and destruction. Even today, some people keep water from the Ganges in a sealed glass in their homes, such is its sacredness. It’s no surprise the river holds great significance – the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin is home to at least 630 million people. That is almost two-thirds of the population of Africa, while the size of the African continent is about 18 times the size of the river basin. While most of the river basin is located in India, it also crosses into China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. About 47 per cent of the total irrigated area in India is located in the Ganges basin alone. No wonder the Ganga is considered the holiest river in India.

History has taught us that water brings wealth and the blossoming of great civilizations. The Rivers Tigris and Euphrates gave birth to the rise of the Mesopotamians, the Nile the ancient Egyptians, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers the ancient Chinese. Certainly, the Ganges region has also supported some of the great cultures and thinkers of South Asia and the world, including two of the globe’s biggest religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. And yet, today, the Ganges river basin also contains the largest number of people living in poverty in any one region of the world.

The reasons for extreme poverty in the Ganges river basin are complex, but water is at the heart of the problem – more than half the morbidity in the river basin stems from the use of impure drinking water. The source of life has become a source of death.

I was in India for work, travelling with Opportunity International Australia. We started our journey in the ancient, holy city of Varanasi – a city well-known for its water. Varanasi floats at the edge of the polluted Ganges, its magnificent buildings crumbling into the water as though sinking into a state of humbled worship. Life splashes at the edges of the river in a chaotic symphony of praying, washing, eating, selling, singing, moving and sleeping. And death lurks in the reflection of it all – at the cremation ghat, we watched a smouldering fire nibble at the remains of a cloth that once warmed a human body; in the brown river the rotting carcass of a holy cow bobbed past.

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But it was in rural Buxar, five or so hours north of Varanasi and still resting at the edge of the great Ganga, that I stopped long enough to see just how deeply water seeped into every facet of life.

The quality of a community’s water is very closely linked to their sanitation and hygiene practices. Consider this: around 700,000 children die every year (almost 2,000 children a day) from diarrhoea caused by the combination of unsafe water and poor sanitation. And the problems caused by poor water quality don’t just affect children: half the hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene.

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In the evenings, as the fog set in, we’d leave the villages to journey home. Driving slowly along bumpy dirt roads, I noticed women standing solo alongside the road at strange and isolated junctions. Sometimes there were men too. They’d stare into the car headlights solemnly as we crawled past, trying not to stare back – they were trying to have a private moment in the darkness to relieve themselves of the day’s food and drink.

Open defecation in the state of Bihar – where Buxar is – is 83 per cent according to 2011 census data. Roughly, that means that only two in every 10 people have access to a toilet. The problem isn’t just the inconvenience of not being able to duck outside to the loo in the middle of the night. As well as the health issues that stem from poor waste management, not having access to a private toilet poses a safety problem too.

To prevent themselves from being seen going to the toilet in the open, women often wait to go to the toilet early in the morning and late at night. That might mean dehydrating themselves intentionally during the day to make it easier to hold off going. One woman I spoke to told me she started her day at 4am so she’d have time to go out into the jungle before the men started rising. She wouldn’t dream of going at any other time of day. Sadly, police and social activists in Bihar say that the lack of private, safe toilets is behind Bihar’s high number of rapes – police there reported more than 870 cases in 2012, and it is thought that many more go unreported. In the same study, 49% of the households that did not have a toilet wanted one for “safety and security”.

There’s also evidence to show that poor sanitation practices and poor water quality can cause health problems with long term impacts, like child stunting. Stunting is often referred to as “malnutrition”, which might suggest the solution is to provide more and better food, but it is connected to so many other lifestyle factors. This graph demonstrates that in countries where many people defecate openly, childhood stunting is higher – especially in rural areas where open defecation tends to be more common.

As much as I saw the challenges, I also saw glimmers of hope. I met amazing women, like Nisha, who are trying to change this.

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Nisha (pictured above) is one of 1,200 community health leaders that Opportunity is training to raise awareness on the importance of basic health, hygiene and nutrition. Nisha has reached out to hundreds of households in her area, and the community takes her – and the messages she shares – very seriously. As I watched Nisha speak with a group of mothers and daughters who’d travelled to Nisha’s home to learn from her, I watched mothers and daughters openly challenging cultural norms, talking about once taboo topics like sanitary napkins and breast cancer. Nisha has also helped more than 100 women access funds to build toilets in their own homes.

Nisha’s commitment to change is inspiring. But there is still so much more work that needs to be done. In 2011, the Indian government released a report to say that it could be 2135 – 100 years from now – before the state of Bihar is open defecation free if progress doesn’t happen faster.

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Widespread collaboration from all levels of government, NGOs and local communities – supported by the international community – is essential. Water really is something holy – it affects every single aspect of our lives in ways that we don’t even notice most of the time. It is so much more than just a drop to drink.

_Nisha w Preema and baby Babu

Opportunity is hoping to train 2000 women like Nisha by the end of 2014. If you’re interested, you can find out more or support the project here

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