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Water-for-Schools Plan Launched

by Jeffrey Allen

WASHINGTON - Activists working to improve lives and livelihoods around the world gathered in the United States capital Wednesday to launch a new initiative to bring water and sanitation facilities to schools that currently lack them.

The WASH-in-Schools initiative aims to bring clean drinking water, toilet facilities, and hygiene education to 1,000 schools in developing countries during its first phase.

Half the world's 1 million schools don't have any source of clean drinking water or even a basic latrine. The initiative hopes to eventually reach as many of those schools as possible.

Dirty drinking water and poor sanitation facilities cause a host of health problems, including diarrhea, dehydration, cholera, malaria, and giardia, primarily in the world's less developed countries. These maladies are often fatal, but even when they're not, they usually keep the afflicted from working, parenting, studying, or otherwise participating in the activities that drive communities' prosperity.

"I don't think it's that complicated. One billion people without access to clean water is a crisis," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, which is involved in the initiative. "This is a hard problem, but it's a solvable problem."

"There is a piece of this problem we can tear off and solve," he added, referring to water access in schools. "It can be solved, and there are so many corresponding benefits for communities."

Those who, like Gleick, have been working to increase access to water and sanitation facilities around the world, generally agree that the solutions are known and require no new technological breakthroughs; only the money to implement them is lacking.

Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have gained access to clean water worldwide thanks to government initiatives and nongovernmental projects, but another billion are still in need, said Carol Bellamy. Bellamy is president of the nonprofit group World Learning, directed the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and sometimes calls herself "the toilet lady" for all the latrines she has dedicated worldwide.

Entire communities reap the benefits when schools are outfitted with safe drinking water, hygienic sanitation facilities, and -- crucially -- separate toilet facilities for girls where they can take care of their private needs without having to return home, added Bellamy.

These investments mean children are more likely to stay healthy and learn more at school, and girls are less likely to drop out of school once they begin to menstruate, according to experts.

The initiative would also have significant spillover benefits, participants said, as women and children wouldn't have to walk such long distances to gather water for their families, thus leaving more time for studying, working, and other activities. Fewer sick community members would mean fewer girls and boys leaving school to care for relatives, and children would be expected to pass on the health-safety information they learn at school to their parents, out-of-school peers, and others in the community.

"You get multiple returns on this modest investment," Bellamy stressed, referencing her days as an investment banker.

Water experts estimate that an additional $15 billion a year for the next seven years could bring safe water and sanitation facilities to half the communities in the world that still need them. By comparison, says the environmental research group Earth Policy Institute, about $100 billion is spent each year on bottled water worldwide, which is not guaranteed to be any healthier and is often little more than tap water with added minerals that show no health benefits.

The WASH-in-Schools initiative has been spearheaded by the nonprofit group Water Advocates, which raises money for international projects that bring clean water and sanitation facilities to communities that need them. Many of the group's partners were at the National Geographic building in Washington for the launch event.

The initiative is unique in bringing together those working on the issue in different ways and with distinct backgrounds. In the room were representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), corporate executives, bankers, school children, and government officials, including the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States.

"Today's event marks an unprecedented scaling up of operations," said David Douglas, Water Advocates' president. Douglas recognized by name some 30 NGOs working with communities around the world to extend clean water, sanitation, and hygiene education to schools, and who, he said, are capable of expanding their operations to impact millions more schoolchildren, as funds become available.

NGOs involved with the WASH-in-Schools initiative include Action Against Hunger, the Academy for Educational Development, Catholic Relief Services, El Porvenir, Engineers Without Borders, Mercy Corps, Population Services International, and the Student Movement for Real Change.

Lee Lysne of the Kind World Foundation, which has put over $1 million towards clean water programs worldwide, urged people and organizations concerned by the issue not to be paralyzed by the scope of the problem but to be energized by the myriad ways they can help.

Organizers encouraged people to get involved by forming alliances between U.S. and international schools; advocating with law makers; speaking to local church, school, or community groups; or making financial contributions to the organizations implementing projects around the world.

"Today is Day 1 for getting WASH into 1,000 schools in the developing world," said Andra Tamburro, Water Advocates' program director for the initiative, "and, most importantly, for then moving beyond those 1,000 schools."

© 2008 One World

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