Most of you haven’t thought much about water today.
I’ll bet you’re less than 100 feet away right now from a tap that can dispense free and clean water. But tap water might not be something you drink often. Many of you will have bottled water with you, perhaps on your desk or in your handbag. In fact, if you live in America and are like most, you’ll use an average of 150 gallons today without even thinking about it.
But what if you were born somewhere else? What if you were born in Liberia, West Africa? What would water mean to you today?
Try to suspend your reality for a moment, and travel with me to a small and now peaceful West African nation. Explore city and country living in sunny Liberia.
You live in the bustling coastal capital, Monrovia. You’re one of about a million people here and it’s an exciting time. Streetlights come on slowly each month now as power grids and tangled wires broken from 14 years of civil war are brought back online. There’s now a single working stoplight in town, and dilapidated taxis crash to a halt on red, giving way to a stream of alternate traffic. Your president is the first woman ever elected to lead an African country, and she’s making progress. 15,000 UN peacekeepers usher in a new hope for your nation, each day, chaos is every so slowly replaced with order.
But conditions are still among the worst in the world here.
You are fortunate enough to live in a small house with a good roof of zinc and splintered wooden windows that swing open on hinges, but your neighborhood is truly vile. The dry and dusty area around your house is littered with garbage and bile. There’s no sewage system in town, or in the country for that matter. The public latrines are ramshackle tin structures built over the river, and small children stoop on the shores. Human waste floats downstream, and at the beaches, the golden sand smells and ocean waves carry fecal matter. You dread the rainy season’s approach in late May. The downpours come, the rivers and swamps rise and sweep, and your neighborhood turns into an open sewer.
But today is dry and hot, and you need water. You have a few options.
Option 1. You’ve got some money in your pocket. You grab your two 5-gallon Jerry Cans and head over to a nearby city “tap” for water. This is a new thing – progress again you could say – as most days water now runs weakly through city pipes. There’s a wait, but you stand patiently in line for 30 minutes and pay the attendant 10 Liberian Dollars for each jug (about 8 cents). He grabs the dirty vacuum cleaner hose attached to the city tap, and fills your buckets. There’s a square cement hole next to you that collects the spillage, and it’s a nasty mess you avoid stepping in.
Option 2. You had a bad day selling your wares at market yesterday, and don’t have a single Liberian dollar to your name. You hope business will be better today, so you can at least get something to eat. But you need water now. Instead of the city tap, you head to one of the open wells nearby. You use a shredded tire to lower a badly broken algae-coated bucket into the hole and lift the water out. The water comes out milky and white, so you head back to your back porch, where you’ve got a bag of sand hung from sticks. You dump the well water into your homemade filter, and place a bucket underneath. Sand is amazing at filtering out contaminants, but you couldn’t afford to buy clean sand, and instead got this sand from the beach, Monrovia’s toilet. The water looks clean as it comes out, and you hope for the best as you drink, cook and clean with the 10 gallons you collected.
It’s lush, green and beautiful near the border with Guinea, and cooler at night than in the city. Malaria’s a killer here, but you’ve had it so many times now, your body has worked up some resistance to it and it’s more of a regular nuisance than a threat to your life now.
You live in a mud house with a leaky roof in a town with about 750 others, and you’ll be lucky to make $150 this year. You farm cassava, and can generally keep food on the table. You use the 50 cents a day to buy rice, fish and soap.
Water is big trouble for you here. Unlike the conveniences of the city, here you’ve got to walk quite a distance into the jungle to find the pond where you’ll gather your water. The village pigs use the same pond to bathe and defecate, and even though the water looks pretty clear, you hate the fact that everybody else from the village wades into the middle to collect water. You’ve had diarrhea for three weeks now, and suspect the water. You would carry yourself to the nearest clinic 15 miles away if you had the money for transport, but even if you got yourself there, the $2 admission fee and $3 meds would be out of reach. You suffer silently and hope your stomach will return to normal.
You just heard some people came and put in a freshwater well in a village about 5 miles away, and wished your village could get enough money together to provide itself with clean water. But even collectively, a few thousand dollars here in Liberia is impossible.
* * *
I spent the last seven days seeing about the “water business” as they say here in Liberia. Travels with camera took me through the slums of Monrovia to dusty towns in the jungle, where I followed children as they fetched water from fetid ponds and swamps. I met some incredibly courageous people, more faces to the world’s 1.1 billion without access to clean water.
Click here to see more photos of Liberia.
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You can help us give people clean water in Liberia.
We are adding Liberia to the countries we work in and Sunday, charity: water committed to fund the construction of 30 new freshwater wells in the country. This will bring our total African wells in development to 126. Amazing, really – you’ve helped us accomplish so much in only seven months. We’ve raised more than $670,000 and continue to need your help and financial support.
LONDON. I’m in London this week, meeting with our incredible team of people who are working hard to launch charity: water in the UK. The launch is planned for early autumn, and the reception to the project has been overwhelming. If you live in London, please consider joining the team. There are lots of ways to get involved. In particular, the team is looking for people who can assist or have contacts in the following areas: web, creative/design, media, events and fundraising (corporate and individual donors). Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW YORK. charity is looking for both full-time staff and summer interns. If you’d like more information, please query email@example.com for descriptions.
FINAL NOTE. Before I left for Africa, we learned that the Internal Revenue Service approved our application for 501(c)(3) status. All contributions made to charity global since our inception are fully tax-deductible.
– Scott Harrison