by Kristin Allen

My entire house is a germ-ridden nightmare. Both my 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son have the miserable stomach flu that is terrorizing everyone. It is not pretty here right now, to say the least. I am pumping them both full of liquids to keep them hydrated, and I am washing my hands about every 45 seconds, to try to keep myself from getting sick. It is no fun, but it made me think about the time I spent in Niger, West Africa, in January 2012. The trip broadened my understanding as to how having water – safe water – is essential to staying healthy, and how and, believe it or not, WHY people die when it is lacking.

{photo by Gil Garcetti}

The one thing I didn’t understand prior to my trip, is that when there is no safe water source in a village, the people do not die of the type of dehydration that is depicted in movies: lost in the desert with no water at all. Instead, what happens is that the villagers find a water source – however, contaminated – and use it to “survive”. Women and girls walk hours and miles a day to disgusting, disease-ridden water holes. One time, I saw a water hole that was simply a pit dug deep enough into the earth that water would simply seep in. The water that was pulled out was brown from the mud and other debris in the hole. At some point during the day, all of the water would be taken out, and there would be no water to be had until more seeped back in – typically the next day. Another time, I witnessed women fetching water from a small lake. It seemed like a better alternative, until I saw the livestock that were defecating and urinating into it as they drank from it themselves.

{photo by Gil Garcetti}

When water is such a scarce commodity, it takes women and girls hours a day to carry it back to the village, that it is used for one thing only: consumption. But consumption is a double-edged sword. Frequently, the contamination in the water causes terrible intestinal problems and diarrhea that then leads to severe dehydration. How can you possibly combat dehydration from diarrhea, when the only thing you can drink is the poison that caused it in the first place? This is why diarrhea is the second leading cause of death in children under 5 years of age in Niger.

What about prevention of disease? When there is no safe water source in a village, the water is too precious to use for hygiene. It is second nature for me to wash and rewash my hands to try to prevent the flu from knocking me down, but this simple habit of hygiene is not an option for villagers in Niger who do not have a safe water source. However, once a village has a safe water source, the villagers can start to learn about the importance of hand-washing to eliminate and reduce illness and infection. Simply washing hands can cut the risk of diarrhea up to 50 percent.

{photo by Gil Garcetti}

Trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, is spread from person to person. It is a huge problem in Niger. Trachoma is caused by bacteria, and one of the best ways to prevent it is by washing your face and hands – an impossibility when water is scarce. However, a village with safe water has the “luxury” of using water for hygiene. Diseases can be virtually eliminated by the villagers, simply because they are able to wash their faces and hands.

{photo by Barbara Goldberg}

Safe water creates an avalanche of benefits: Girls can go to school and avoid the permanent, crippling deformity and injury that results from the weight of water carried on their heads. Trachoma can be virtually eliminated in a village; and diarrhea doesn’t have to be so deadly. All of this from one, simple well.