They danced. They sang. They shouted and cried for joy. Had their team won the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup? Had they won a giant Powerball lottery? No, but their lives had been transformed. A well had been dug in their village, and now they would have a clean, reliable source of water and not need to spend hours each week hauling water from miles away.
Muslims and Christians embraced. Speeches were given. Gratitude was expressed. People took turns pumping cool, refreshing, clean water and savoring it as it flowed over their arms and feet. The scene was a small village in Malawi, a country ranked among the poorest nations in the world.
I had written about the impact of providing wells to impoverished communities in my book “Suffer the Children.” Now as part of a mission trip, I was witnessing the celebration and ecstasy having a well brought first-hand. I struggled in vain to think of a first-world parallel to this event. There was none. The closest one I could imagine was a company bringing hundreds of jobs to a hardscrabble small town.
The 92-year-old mother of one of our mission team members had donated $5,000 to pay for drilling the well. It was money incredibly well spent. When 16 development experts were recently asked which poverty interventions are most successful, they ranked providing clean water to rural villages as number one, ahead of sponsoring or deworming children or providing microloans, mosquito nets, wood burning stoves, farm animals, or laptops.
Millions of people in developing nations live in villages or rural areas where the only source of water is a polluted river, stream, or swamp. Imagine carrying 80 pounds of water in a can on your head or back for five miles once or twice a day, digging in the sand to obtain water, or waiting at a well for several hours for your turn to draw water. While an average American household uses about 100 gallons of water each day, families in the developing world use a mere five gallons a day. Consequently, after hauling water home, the poor have to choose whether to use it for drinking, cooking, bathing, or washing dishes and clothes because they do not have enough water for all these purposes. Worldwide, the indigent spend billions of hours procuring water, time that children could instead use to attend school or play and adults to generate much needed income.
Improving water and sanitation especially benefits women. Countless women and girls devote as many as 20 hours per week to collecting water, which also limits their school attendance and often destroys their dreams of becoming physicians, teachers, lawyers, or nurses. Demographers predict that one billion women could enter the global workforce in the next 10 years, but the time they will expend searching for safe water will impede their ability to do so. When communities have a clean, easily-accessed water supply, women spend less time caring for sick family members and can earn more money. Because women and girls are often assaulted or raped on their trips to procure water, their lives also become safer.
In the developing world, either the lack of water or contaminated water causes numerous health problems, including the death of almost two million children every year. Impure drinking water, coupled with improper hand washing and inadequate sanitation, causes diarrhea, which alone leads to almost one million deaths per year. Filthy latrines, open sewage, and the lack of bathing opportunities make matters worse. Strikingly, more people today own a mobile phone than have a toilet in their home.
Every minute a child dies as a result of a water-related disease such as roundworm, whipworm, or hookworm. These diseases also stunt growth, produce debilitating anemia, diminish children’s cognitive potential, and lead millions of them to miss many days of school. Among other benefits, access to clean water cuts infant mortality in rural villages in half at a cost of only $10 per child per year.
More than 80 organizations, Christian and secular, are working to provide clean water and improve sanitation around the world. They drill wells, distribute hygiene kits, and construct latrines and hand-washing stations. These organizations also make water filters from basic local materials and teach residents of poor communities to wash their hands, cook with clean utensils, and draw water from uncontaminated sources.
Few of us will ever have the opportunity to rescue an individual from a burning building or from drowning, but we can save (or at least significantly enhance) the lives of poor children and adults by paying for wells that supply clean, safe, reliable water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. Working through numerous organizations including charity (Living Water International, individuals, families, Sunday school classes, congregations, and community organizations) can fund the digging of wells to transform the lives of the poor. Charity: water, for example, helps children in the developed world use their birthday parties as a means to raise money to dig wells rather than receive presents. Working together, we can make a difference and help fulfill the biblical mandate to care for the least of these.
—Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of "Suffer the Children" (2017), "Religion in the Oval Office" (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), "Religion in the Oval Office" and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).