Tuesday marked World Water Day, an annual event that focuses attention on the importance of having access to fresh, clean water. Water is essential to the health and livelihood of every person — we need it to sustain ourselves, to drink, to cook with; it is a human right. The annual day of awareness first began in 1992 during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil. This year's theme is "Water and Jobs," which aims to draw the connection between water and job creation around the globe. This brings to light the ways in which accessible, clean water has a disproportionate affect on women and girls, but should also point us to the urgent problem of the racial aspects of water access.
In fact, the issue of international water access is, to some extent, one of international environmental racism, considering the effects of colonialism and war on the populations that have seen the most devastating effects.
Access to water is a serious problem that affects people living in many countries in the developing world, as well as communities living right here in the United States. Since April 2014, low-income families and communities of color living in Flint, Michigan — whose population is 57 percent black and poor — faced a water crisis after the city's officials changed its main water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. As a result, the city's water supply was contaminated with lead, which could have a lifelong effect on the 8,000 children under 6 years old who have been exposed to lead in the water supply as recently as January 2016.
In both domestic cases, as well as the cases haunting hundreds of countries across the globe, low-income families and communities of color are most affected by the lack of access to safe, clean drinking water. This is an issue of systemic inequality facing the world's poorest communities — it is an issue that is both racial and gendered. Access to clean, safe water affects the people of Flint, Michigan, as it does in parts of Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, and especially African countries, where the lasting effects of colonialism and continued war have maintained devastating circumstances for millions of people.
To address some of the issues associated with access to safe water internationally, UNICEF's water, sanitation, and hygiene programs are working to bring safer water to children who need it most. Their work draws connections between climate change — from flooding to droughts — and the destruction of water supplies. UNICEF's Tap Project specifically focuses on bringing clean, safe water to children around the world. You can help by visiting uniceftapproject.org on a smartphone, and taking a break from your regular everyday phone use for just five minutes to unlock a donation that is equivalent to one whole day of clean water for a child.
"Today, 663 million people don’t have safe, clean, drinking water, and more than 2.4 billion people live without a proper toilet," says Caryl Stern, the CEO and President of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, in an interview with Bustle. "[Climate change and water] are inextricably linked. The place where climate change is first felt is in water access." Stern — who has worked with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF since 2006 — spoke to the direct link between natural disasters and access to clean water.
Stern adds, "300 million kids are living in areas at high risk of flooding, and it contaminates safe water. It causes widespread disease, it exacerbates poverty, it undermines development. That happens when these huge monster storms come through in one place, and the climate will shift around the globe as a result of it. So it’s not only global climate change, it’s global impact of a storm in a particular area, or a drought in a particular area. With all the natural disasters that happen — the floods, the storms — they destroy existing water supplies, or they leave some contaminated."
Having limited clean water access has significant health affects on children, specifically because germs that pollute the water can hurt and harm the body. But that's not even the most significant problem facing children who don't have access to clean water — many will suffer from chronic diarrhea, leaving them dehydrated, and many children will die from this.
Stern also spoke to the ways that a lack of clean water access disproportionately affects women and girls, and its role in the cycle of gender inequality.
"If there’s no running water in the town or the village and people have to go elsewhere to get that water, it’s usually the girls who are the water fetchers," she says. "So if there is no access to water in the immediate community, then girls don’t get to go to school because they’re the ones walking the couple hours to the river to fetch what may not be clean water to begin with."
The connection between the water crisis and girls' access to education is important — they face many barriers already. The intersections of poverty, race, and gender are important to the discussion of access to safe water, and education. According to the Global Partnership for Education, twice "as many girls as boys will never start school," and only 8 percent of girls finish secondary school in Sub-Saharan Africa.
"Education is one of the only things in the arsenal that interrupts the cycle of poverty," Stern continues, which makes it extremely important for young women internationally to access that right. Children who can't make it to school — either from dehydration due to poor water access, or from having to fetch clean water rather than attend school — have less of a chance of breaking the cycle of poverty that faces them.
One aspect of the project that Stern spoke to is creating awareness about global inequalities, saying, "Part of it is having our schools understand that we need to teach our children to be good global citizens, which means having them comprehend the inequities that exist in our world today."
So far during this year's campaign, participants have spent nearly 15 million minutes away from their phones, which is nearly 3 million days of clean water for children. The campaign ends on March 31, so there is still time to visit the Tap Project website and make your contribution. Visit the Tap Project website for more information on where the water crisis is felt the most, what this looks like, and how to get involved.
Images: UNICEF/UNI138692/Nakibuuka (1)