Susan Barnett is the founder of Cause Communications and Faiths for Safe Water, an advocacy project engaging faith leaders around water, the single symbol shared by all religions. Barnett also heads communications for the Gates-funded Faith for International Assistance, which seeks to strengthen U.S. public support for foreign assistance through the voice and lens of faith. In addition, she is an Emmy-nominated investigative journalist (ABC News Prime Time Live, 20/20, and Dateline NBC) whose first documentary premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012 and has since been seen on six continents in festivals, theaters, and television. Her second documentary, a film series, aided efforts that stopped almost all illegal logging in one of Borneo’s last great rainforests by linking the rainforest to local health. Her third documentary will be based on Muslim leaders from nine countries journeying to Auschwitz.
Perhaps it’s no accident that water is the single symbol shared by every world religion. Each of us has one hundred times as many water molecules in our bodies than the sum of all other molecules combined. Without water, there is no life. Water blesses, sanctifies, and purifies in our rituals. But in daily life, too often water has the opposite impact.
Sometimes I feel like I am exploiting a young boy because I’ve told his story so many times. But I will keep telling it because this once-lively child died from an easily prevented disease.
Cristian—yes, that is his real name—was diagnosed with a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD). NTDs are a group of infections that spread through unsafe water, so they often attack the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world. One point four billion people are sickened with NTDs; not surprising, over a third of them are children.
Cristian’s particular NTD caused an eye infection that wasn’t just preventable, it was also treatable with a steady routine of hand and face washing. The problem was, his family lives in the impoverished outskirts of the capital city of Honduras, where water is a gateway to disease. Despite his parents’ efforts, Cristian suffered for two years as his eye infection became a tumor that covered part of his face. When he was 11 years old, he died of complications from a perfectly preventable and treatable disease.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve known that clean water and sanitation are fundamental to disease prevention, treatment, and containment. But 200 years later, the lack of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) isn’t just a problem in homes. Hospitals and healthcare facilities around the world still look like something out of the 1800s. Many of these healthcare facilities are run by faith-based organizations (FBOs).
The World Health Organization (WHO) surveyed WASH in over 66,000 hospitals and healthcare facilities in 54 countries, and the findings are truly shocking: almost 40 percent of healthcare facilities do not have access to safe water, 35 percent do not have soap and water for hand-washing, and almost 20 percent do not have even basic sanitation.
It shouldn’t need stating that there is simply no way to safely deliver healthcare without clean water. Neither patients nor providers are protected, and newborns are at particular risk. And though located in distant countries, the impact of not preventing infections is felt in the United States, too.
As we continue to rely on antibiotics to cure infections that are preventable, we’re all heading down a new road that is leading us backward to a world before antibiotics. Drug resistance knows no borders. Many common antibiotics we’ve all come to rely on are no longer effective and few are in development. In 1990, at least 18 large pharmaceutical companies were actively developing antibiotics. Today, there are four.
Drug resistance isn’t theoretical. It is already causing longer, costlier, and more complicated illnesses; more doctor visits; the need for stronger and more expensive drugs; and more deaths.
Which is why it is so vital focus on prevention. Every infection prevented is one that needs no treatment. Prioritizing WASH is singularly the best safeguard of health security for all. Providing WASH doesn’t require organizations to change missions or science to conquer new frontiers. This problem is solvable. Between 1990 and 2012, 2.3 billion people gained access to better water, though sanitation continues to lag behind. What’s missing isn’t technology; it’s priority. And FBOs are perfectly positioned to prioritize WASH.
FBOs run health clinics, hospitals, and schools all over the world. Replacing the inappropriate and overuse of antibiotics will go far in ending unnecessary suffering from preventable illness and disease. And it will help families get on a path out of poverty to greater productivity and new economic opportunities that ultimately benefit the global economy.
Yes, all that exists in a glass of water.
Certainly, human existence is about much more than water, but it can never be about less. No matter one’s religion, we can all agree that every person deserves a clean glass of water. Together we can transform water from the burden that it is, into the source of health and life it is meant to be.