How does water affect our lives? A fresh look at H2O

March 19, 2020
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Jennifer Nolan / Concern Worldwide

Water makes life possible, but it also has the power to wash away everything you’ve worked for in an instant. Here are 5 ways that water impacts the communities we work with — for good and for bad.

Water is life, as the saying goes. We rely on water for our food, our health, our livelihoods, and for fun and leisure. But water can also take away life, and the absence of water can be even worse. Currently, 700 million people live in water-stressed areas. By 2025, this number is expected to grow 1.8 billion — about 25% of the world population.

As Number 6 on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, “Clean Water and Sanitation For All” is currently struggling. The UN suggests that, if we want to meet this goal by the deadline of 2030, we’ll need to double our current rate of progress to ensure that there’s universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene resources, improved water quality, and restored water-related ecosystems. Here are 5 ways that water affects our lives — and what we’re doing to help make them happen.

1. Water puts food on the table and money in the bank

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 60–80% of severely food-insecure people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods (and their own nutrition). This includes farming of crops and raising livestock, as well as fishing.. In Africa, where over half of Concern’s country programs are located, 95% of crops are rain-fed. As we’ve seen in areas like Somalia, just one drought can spell disaster for an entire harvest.

kitchen garden in Burundi

Six-year-old David Minani waters the family kitchen garden in Mutembo, Burundi, while his mom, dad, and four brothers watch on. Photo: Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures

Concern has found solutions for many farming communities. In one Ethiopian community, for example, we provided the expertise and money needed to help build a 10-mile system of irrigation channels and reservoirs, bringing water from a nearby river across 200 acres to 140 farming families. That means bigger harvests to keep families fed — and incomes stable. 

When lakes and rivers dry up, families are often forced to walk hundreds of miles to find water for their animals to drink. Or, they may lose their (literal) cash cows. A drought in the Turkana region of Kenya, that has now lasted for nearly 4 years, has meant that pastoralists like Ng’ikario Ekiru, a 37-year–old mother of 6, have gone from herds of 100 down to 5 (Ng’ikario, her family, and the flock all rely on the same source of food — a wild fruit that grows in the bush). Concern can’t refill dry rivers, but we can (and do!) truck water to the families and livestock that need it most.

Woman with goat herd outside her home in Turkana, northern Kenya

Ng’ikario Ekiru with the last of her goat herd outside their home in Turkana, northern Kenya. She is feeding her family and livesstock with wild desert fruit and roasted animal hides as the area experiences the second drought in 3 years. Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide

2. Water can help kill germs — and curb epidemics

Washing your hands doesn’t just get them clean — it can also save your life. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that good hygiene is the best way to prevent infections and diarrheal diseases. As we’re currently seeing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, handwashing is also one of the best things we can all do to curb the spread of a global health crisis. 

In many of the countries where Concern works, these infections are a leading cause of illness and death. But a lot of the diseases and infections that affect the communities we work with are 100% preventable, and a little bit of soap and water go a long way towards that prevention. As part of Concern’s water, sanitation, and hygiene programming (WASH) we help provide clean water and teach people good habits so they can stay healthy.

3. Water isn’t always there

Sometimes the biggest problem water poses is when it’s not accessible. For example, drought across much of East Africa has further complicated a large-scale hunger crisis in the region, further exacerbated by conflict. In some cases, water access can even lead to conflict. 

Even in peaceful countries, water that is too far away can be damaging for families. Daily water-gathering is usually the responsibility of women and girls. When rivers, lakes, and reservoirs dry up, they must travel increasingly long distances to find water. This can keep girls out of school, and keep women away from taking care of their families or earning income. In fact, collectively, women and girls spend 200 million hours fetching water every day.

4. Water may be in supply — but it can also be contaminated

According to the World Health Organization, almost 400,000 children under the age of 5 die from diarrheal diseases every year. These infections are often caused by poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water. 

You probably know that bacteria and chemical pollutants are bad news, but that’s not the only danger. For example, when freshwater sources are contaminated by salt (which can happen when ocean water surges into freshwater areas), the consequences can be devastating for the crops, livestock, and people. Rising sea levels in Bangladesh and Vietnam pose a threat to rice crops — more than 50% of Vietnam’s national rice production is centered in the coastal Mekong Delta region. 

In the Bay of Bengal, Concern worked with communities to plant mangroves. This tree serves as a barrier to ocean waters, providing some much needed protection and resilience. We also teach new agriculture techniques, like the use of salt-tolerant crops, in many of the areas where we work. 

Enow and Budha gather water in Northeastern Kenya

Severe drought in Kenya has forced Enow Wanyo and Budha Tura to gather water from a muddy puddle, 30 minutes from their village. People and animals are competing for water that is often contaminated. Concern is providing aquatabs to sterilize the water. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

Learn more about our work in water — and more

5. Too much water washes away homes, fields, and jobs

As the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. That’s also true for water. Flooding and severe storms can wash away communities and infrastructure in an instant. 

We saw this happen last year with Cyclone Idai, which devastated communities in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. As part of our emergency response efforts, we delivered short-cycle crop seeds to the areas of Malawi and Mozambique that were hit hardest. Requiring less time than the average crops growing in the area, these were able to help offset some of the losses of that year’s harvest due to Idai. 

Ernesto Gambulene with the ruined maize crop from his field in Lamego, Mozambique.

Ernesto Gambulene with the ruined maize crop from his field in Lamego, which was inundated by floodwaters from Cyclone Idai for nearly two weeks. He is the father of 7 children and the family home was also destroyed.

Similarly, 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines’ fishing community hard, with 70% of Filipinos in this line of work losing their income, and 65% losing key assets like boats. During this recovery period, Concern gave many fishermen training and jobs at boat yards, repairing boats for their fellow fishermen and rebuilding their own fishing businesses with boats provided by Concern.

Nolito standing next to his new boat in the Philippines

Nolito Dela Cruz and his family lost their home and boat during Typhoon Haiyan. Slowly they managed to rebuild, they also received a new boat from Concern Worldwide so they can continue their livelihood of fishing. Photo: Steve De Neef

Concern’s approach to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

Health, food, gender equality, economic markets, and even education are adversely affected by a lack of clean, readily-available water and restricted access to sanitation (which, for us, goes hand-in-hand with water). 

Ensuring access to clean water and sanitation and providing hygiene information and training are key aspects of Concern’s work, with active water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs in 18 countries. We have dug, drilled, and bored thousands of wells in remote and disadvantaged communities across dozens of countries over the past 50 years and built countless latrines in their schools and health centers. The hours saved and the illnesses prevented make it one of the most effective things we do. When drought or displacement prevent access to clean water supplies, we do what it takes to connect communities, including trucking water to temporary tanks and installing pumps in camps. 

Most importantly, we work closely with communities to help them assess the longstanding challenges they face, change behaviors, and ensure water and sanitation infrastructure will be maintained for the long term. We foster a sense of ownership, build sustainable maintenance practices, and create transparent financial management systems that benefit the community.