By Kaitlin McGarvey, Class XVI

I’ve always known that I wanted to improve the lives of women around the world, but it took me a few years to figure out exactly how I could do this. During my freshman year of college, I went to Uganda where I was studying post-conflict development. I was introduced to girls who were not in school because of their periods. Due to a lack of sanitation and hygiene provisions at school they were unable to attend class while menstruating. Additionally, I learned women and girls in much of Africa walk an average of 6 km to collect water for their families. They may do this walk multiple times a day. To put it in perspective, every day women and girls around the world spend 200 million hours walking to collect water (equal to 22,800 years) [1]. Not only does this take a lot of time, but it is also physically dangerous, particularly in conflict settings.

A couple years later I was in India looking at the role of women in local government. I saw a correlation between the inclusion of women in local government and improved access to clean water. Women understand the impact limited and dirty water have on their families, as they are frequently responsible for collecting water, cooking, cleaning and caring for children sick with water-borne illnesses. The political empowerment of women gives them the authority to contribute to community decision-making, which often includes improving access to water. Similarly, when access to water is improved, women have more time for school and work, which increases socio-economic well-being for their communities as a whole.

As I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I reflected on these moments and the thing that tied them together. If I wanted to better the lives of women and girls, I needed to expand access to water and sanitation.

A woman washing her dishes in a river in Southern India.

663 million people lack access to safe drinking water [2], and about 2.4 billion people have either no access or inadequate access to proper sanitation [3], BUT, it is possible to get these numbers down to 0 by 2030, which is exactly what Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 aims to do.

We know SDG 6 is achievable because the world met our Millennium Development Goal (MDG) [4] for clean drinking water ahead of schedule. MDG 7, established in 2000, set the ambitious goal of halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. The goal was met in 2010, and today only 663 million people still need access to safe drinking water.

Unfortunately, the MDG target to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation was not met. Strides were made with 2.1 billion people gaining access to improved sanitation by 2015. However, 2.4 billion people were left without proper sanitation facilities, and about 946 million people continued to practice open defecation [5].

Clearly there is still work to be done, but we have reason for optimism.

These pictures show a water system in Nakuru, Kenya. A solar-powered borehole (top left). The water committee charges water usage fees. With the money they collect, they are building a pipeline throughout the community, so people can get water closer to their homes and no longer need to walk to a kiosk. A water committee member shares the pipeline plans (above right). A woman displays the quality and pressure of the water piped to her new mango farm. She employs her two sons (standing behind her) to work on her farm (bottom left). A wife and husband show off the quality of water that is piped to their home. They no longer need to walk for dirty water (bottom right).

There are numerous Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene  (WASH) initiatives carried out by governments and NGOs alike. I’m going to highlight just a few key focus areas that I became particularly interested in during my time at WV—each of which are moving us closer to reaching everyone with clean water and sanitation by 2030.

BabyWASH| WASH in Health Care Facilities

One third of health care facilities around the world do not have soap and water for had washing, which risks the lives of millions of people. This poses a particular risk to women who are giving birth and their newborn babies. The WHO estimates that 400,000 babies could be saved each year, simply by improving hygiene practices in health care facilities. Additionally, providing clean water to children in their first 1,000 days of life reduces the risk of stunting, and improves cognitive functioning.

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS)

Nearly 1,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea caused by contaminated water.  It may not sound glamorous, but addressing open defecation protects clean water sources and improves overall community health. CLTS is a participatory approach for mobilizing communities to completely eliminate open defecation. It focuses on behavior change, recognizing that simply providing toilets does not guarantee use or improved sanitation. This methodology was pioneered in Bangladesh, and has proven effective around the world. You can learn more by looking at the CLTS handbook here.

Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM)

When schools lack proper toilets and access to clean water, girls are deterred from attending class during their periods. For some girls, this means missing a week of classes every month, which sets them behind their male peers academically. In many communities, girls will stop attending school altogether when they begin menstruating. This, of course, has implications for society as a whole. Without education, the economic possibilities for girls and women are limited. Simply improving access to sanitation and water at schools increases the likelihood of girls completing their studies.

A WASH club at a school in Nakuru, Kenya. With new toilets and a hand washing station recently built at their school, this club teaches safe menstrual hygiene practices, and encourages their peers to stop open defecation.

WASH in Fragile Contexts

Fragile contexts are those that leave people vulnerable to shocks (economic, political, natural disasters etc.) due to weak government structures. One-fifth of the global population, and nearly half of the people deemed “extremely poor,” live in fragile contexts. Currently, 65.6 million people are displaced around the world, and there are 22.5 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18 [6]. This is the highest level of displacement ever on record. For many displaced people, access to clean water and improved sanitation is their greatest need, and critical to improving resiliency and health.

Spread the word!

The solution to the global water crisis is within our reach. We have the technology and information needed to implement sustainable water and sanitation projects. All we need is your help spreading the word. On the World Water Day, March 22, I encourage you all to familiarize yourselves with global water initiatives.  Some organizations you can get more information from are SIWIWorld VisionWaterAid, and The Sesame Workshop. The more people who realize how close we are to ending the global water crises, the sooner it will be solved.

The water source for a pre-school in Nakuru, Kenya before WASH programming (left) and after WASH programming (right). The school pays a water usage fee, which the water committee will use for system repairs and expansion.




[4] MDGs were established in 2000, giving the world 15 years to meet the goals.



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