In Japan, each day brings new death tolls from the horrific earthquake and tsunami. Each death is counted because each person matters. The rough estimates are that the toll will be around 20,000, but scrupulous attention is paid to verifying the numbers. This reflects the Japanese culture: each death is mourned, each life celebrated.
When it comes to death from poverty, the “silent tsunami,” the numbers that we can muster are crude estimates, and they are used most of all to move hearts and pique the conscience. They also aim to drive planning and the setting of priorities. These deaths are no less a loss than those in Japan, and surely each one is mourned by family and friends. But we know too little about most of them.
One such estimate is that over 3,900 children die each day (yes, day) because of diarrhea linked to dirty water. Compare that to the painful death toll in Japan. Another estimate is that between 20,000 and 30,000 children die each day from preventable causes. Imagine the pain that causes parents in every corner of the world.
March 22 is World Water Day, a time designated each year since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to focus attention on the importance of water and on the large gap between those who turn on a tap and have clean water and those who must struggle even to find and carry water that is often not safe or clean. Water, sanitation, and hygiene are so tightly linked that WASH//?? has become the framework for the topic. We are actually in the midst of a United Nations decade dedicated to water. As then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan observed: “We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care.” Water is in many senses the first step in fighting poverty.
Moving and informative events mark World Water Day. The importance of clean water and sanitation is not hard for anyone to grasp. The basic message is that we need to act, and that the needs of the poor--those whose deaths are not counted one by one but rounded out to the nearest thousand or even million--must be at the forefront of our priorities.
Religion and water are tightly linked. The need for water, its vital importance for all living things, its purifying qualities, are a common thread in virtually all spiritual traditions. Water programs, digging wells and encouraging hygiene, are thus part of virtually all faith-inspired programs. Water sermons are preached, and faith leaders and communities call for action.
The faith calls to act on water goals are an inspiration, and many are informed by practical, on-the-ground knowledge. But the many calls for action are not adding up yet to the kind of mobilization that can transform the world picture. Even the most basic water needs are still a mirage for perhaps a million people. Gloomy experts predict wars fought over water because with mounting populations and changing climate, scarcities are bound to increase.
On March 18, a group that met at the Berkley Center to explore faith and water identified areas where action by faith communities could scale up the impact of the work that is underway. It will take more sharing of knowledge about what others are doing, a clear sense of the policy priorities, and political determination to make the silent tsunami of unnecessary deaths a thing of the past. So this World Water Day, we seek a new covenant and a new and gritty will to make sure that every human being indeed can fulfill the right to drink clean water. We should be able to count and mourn each unnecessary death, and celebrate the lives that are saved and lived in their fullness.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.