Why is water and sanitation one of Rotary’s seven areas of focus?

How can access to clean water and sanitation empower women and children?

How can our efforts to provide water and sanitation support the process of peacebuilding?

Rotary founder Paul Harris said, “Perhaps dreaming is not so bad if one dreams good dreams and makes them come true.” Rotary’s dream and mission is to serve humanity. Providing access to clean water and sanitation for the most vulnerable communities brings life and is essential to making all of our dreams come true.  

Water is life, health, hygiene, and fundamental dignity.
Rheem Ghunaim is the Executive Director of the Rotary Action Group for Peace

To fulfill our dream of Water and Sanitation for all, here are some of the statistics from Rotary and World Health Organization (WHO) that we as Rotarians and peacebuilders should consider:

  • 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, a segment almost twice as large as the entire population of China.
  • 1,400 children die each day from diseases caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water. That is over half a million children per year.
  • 748 million people do not have clean drinking water, twice the population of the United States.

Contaminated water, lack of sanitation, and poor hygiene are connected to the spread of preventable diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Poorly managed water and sanitation services directly increase preventable health risks in disadvantaged communities.  According to WHO, diarrhea is responsible for the annual deaths of nearly 300,000 children under age five. These deaths can be avoided when we provide clean water systems and access to proper sanitation. Rotarians save millions of lives by providing education, hygiene, and sanitation. When Rotarians act to provide educational support on proper handwashing to vulnerable communities, we reduce diarrhea cases by up to 35 percent.  

Every day, women in poor communities must make impossible choices  - death or disease - due to shortages of water, or water from contaminated sources. Fetching water is a critical task often assigned to women in their communities. Women in parts of rural Africa spend six hours a day collecting water from remote sources; this is nearly a full day's work for most women in urban societies.  The distance, effort, and time women spend to collect water negatively impacts their full potential to access education, sustain their family economically, and spend quality time with their families. 

Here is the story of Grace, a woman from Ethiopia who struggled to have her pregnancy last to term. Grace was concerned that the burden of carrying water would jeopardize the ability to carry her baby to birth. To reduce the weight, she had to make more trips and carry less water. When she told her story to the humanitarian organization ‘Water’ she described her walks as “hot and uncomfortable.” The story of Grace is the story of millions of women who are impacted on a daily basis by the issue of access to clean water.

In addition to safe water, a private toilet in the home or school provides a safe and private sanitation space to women and children, which is essential to empowering them to live fully without fear. How can women and children be empowered to focus on fulfilling their human potential when the natural necessity of using a toilet presents the risk of facing unsafe situations each time? Clean water and sanitation are major contributors to women and children’s safety, health, education, and dignity.  For example, when girls reach their menstrual age, they need clean water and private sanitation in order to continue attending school.

Access to clean water and sanitation, especially for women and children, is key to reducing Peace Inequality and Opens Opportunities for them to improve their lives and their communities. Women and children are the population that often is most vulnerable and primarily impacted by a lack of access to safe water and sanitation. The water and sanitation crisis emphasizes the geographic, sociocultural, and economic inequalities suffered by women and children. When we provide clean water and sanitation, we not only alleviate the consequences of these inequalities, but also reverse them. Women become more equipped to contribute to their families' income and children are able to attend school and focus on learning.

Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer and Time Magazines 1998 Inaugural Hero of the Year, said, "No water, no life. No blue, no green." In Rotary, we dream about a dignified life for all and for a green and peaceful planet.

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