Water: It's not just for drinking

Reading the riveting accounts of the Chilean miners’ ordeal this week, I came across a story that described how they survived the first 17 days before contact was established with the world above ground. Not only did they have to ration tiny amounts of food, but they drank water that trickled through the mine from an underground spring. The water, they said, was oily and had a foul taste. But they knew they had to drink it to survive.

Dirty water in Chad.
Dirty water in Chad.

People around the world are forced to make this same decision every day: Drink the dirty water that’s available, or die from dehydration. Unfortunately, when they do this, people often become sick from the water, contracting diarrheal disease or parasites, which also result in dehydration and even malnutrition. The cycle worsens when their fragile immune systems make them more vulnerable to other diseases.

When I think of water as it relates to health, I think mostly of thirst and dehydration. But having clean water to drink is only one aspect of how water contributes to health. Being able to wash your body, your clothes, and go to the bathroom someplace other than a field or stream, are vital to good health.

When I used to bathe my children when they were young, I thought of it more as a comfort than a necessity for health. Sure, a mother knows keeping her child clean is important, but bath time was usually more about making sure they smelled and looked decent after a day of being toddlers. I’ve always appreciated being able to wash away the day in the shower or bath, and start the next day fresh and clean.

women in Kenya gather water
Women in Kenya gather water.

For many moms around the world, this luxury is not available. Dirty children are often sick children. In poor villages in Africa, touching a contaminated surface or the face of an infected person, then touching your eye can actually lead to blindness as diseases like trachoma are spread this way.

In crowded conditions (i.e. most homes around the world), skin diseases like scabies spread easily from sharing unwashed clothing and bedding. The incessant itching can lead to open sores and dangerous infection. Kids are not allowed to attend school for being too dirty, or displaying the symptoms of scabies. This creates another huge problem—kids not being educated—all because of lack of water.

When I first learned about World Concern distributing bars of soap to refugees living in crowded camps in Chad, I thought, oh that’s nice. Now they won’t smell bad. But running water and a bar of soap are much more than that; they are the solution to stopping the spread of many communicable diseases. The people there use the bars of soap to wash clothes and bathe with. And their overall health is improved. We also teach them the basics of hygiene, like hand washing and using a latrine. It’s amazing how many of them don’t know why this is important.

Since I started working at World Concern, I have become acutely aware of the blessing of taking a shower. I never take that warm, running water for granted, and I want so much to ensure that moms like me around the world have a way to bathe their children at night, making them smell good, and protecting their lives.

To learn more about World Concern’s water programs and get involved, visit www.worldconcern.org/water.