As yesterday was World Water Day, I’ve been thinking more about how vital water is to human life. When you’ve always had access to clean water, though, it’s easy to wonder what all the fuss on this day is about. So let’s take a minute to imagine – what does it mean to not have access to clean water?
I recently visited rural West Bengal, India, an area with high poverty and illiteracy rates, numerous health issues, and yearly food shortages. Staff and volunteers with the Samadi Community Development Program have responded to these issues with inspiring dedication. The program – implemented by the Diocese of Durgapur, Episcopal Relief & Development’s partner, in 38 villages throughout the forests of West Bengal —conducts children’s literacy classes five mornings a week to boost school performance. It also provides health education, improves livestock quality through vaccinations and insemination, improves access to food through agricultural education, and facilitates women’s self-help groups and micro finance loans to help families earn income. Yet these efforts are challenged by the problem of water.
Lack of clean water stymies development
If clean water flowed freely in rural West Bengal, the sky would be the limit in the difference the Samadi Program could make. Yet hand pumps are few and far between, and provide a minimal amount of clean water for drinking, cooking and hygiene.
Most residents catch rainwater for four months each year in large ponds dug in the hard earth. This water is used the rest of the year for all household needs, such as washing laundry, bathing and watering animals. Fish are sometimes raised in the ponds to help feed the family. But over time, the ponds become stagnant, contaminated by detergents, soap and livestock use, and also breed mosquitoes and other parasites. The fish consume these pollutants as well. Without a hygienic source of water, many community members get sick with diarrheal disease, skin irritations, parasitic diseases, and waterborne illnesses such as cholera.
As a result, children in the Samadi Program’s literacy classes sometimes fall behind in school because they are ill. Parents participating in the self-help and micro finance programs frequently get sick too, limiting their ability to earn much-needed income. Getting sick risks the lives of the community’s most vulnerable, including young children and the elderly, and could mean spending the little money a family has on health care.
But global water-related problems are twofold: everyone needs both clean water and enough water. Not having enough water has meant that West Bengal communities cannot grow crops after the rainy season. As a result, many farmers search for day labor when the food they grow runs out. Day laborers work on the land of others, often make only enough to feed themselves for the day, and are at constant risk of going hungry if work is not available. Getting sick is not an option, though it occurs often nonetheless, and exploitation, such as poor working conditions and having wages withheld, is frequently a problem.
Access to clean and adequate water is a challenge in many communities worldwide, and is intrinsically connected to poverty and hunger. In Part 2, find out how the Samadi Community Development Program has been able to improve the quality of water in the areas where they work, as well as ensure families are food secure.
Saranga Jain is a Program Officer with Episcopal Relief & Development.
Photos: Right, a traditional pond for water collection in West Bengal. Over time, these ponds become contaminated and cause numerous health problems for communities, Left, building and maintaining hand pumps is am important part of the Samadi Program’s integrated approach to community development and health.