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Water Schools - some important new material

July 29, 2010:

In July 2009 ARC organised what turned out to be a very significant meeting at Salisbury’s Sarum College in the UK.

The subject was Faith, Schools and Water, and we invited some 35 specialists – representing either faiths working on schools and water issues, or secular agencies doing the same, or (-and this was one of the unusual things about our meeting-) entrepreneurs who were developing new methods, tools and techniques which could help schools in the global south cope better with issues of fresh water and/or sanitation.

Please download the conference papers here (1.9MB).

What it led to directly is a story in itself. ARC’s new Water Schools Initiative, only 14 months old at the time of writing, but already linking to many faith schools, water NGOs and government education, water and health departments around the world, is really exciting.

On top of its outcomes, the conference itself was full of so many inspiring stories and statistics which we have found ourselves referring to again and again, that we have decided to issue the conference papers in order to share them. We learned, for example, about:

1. The importance of a high-level campaigner. For example the King of Thailand has not only added the environment to the curriculum, but he has also added it as a Buddhist criterion, since throughout 45 years of his ministry the Buddha urged monks over and over again to be aware of using water and not to waste it. Today, if the King hears that the water in a lake near a village is dirty, instead of advising people to use chemical substances to clean it, he tells them that the best and costless way to sanitize the water in that lake is to put introduce water plants known as Eichhornnia Speciosa into that lake. The dirty water is mitigated by these water-plants.

2. In El Salvador’s Lower Lempa region, there is plenty of water but ironically it cannot be drunk. During the 1970s, the land belonged to just a handful of wealthy families running cotton and sugarcane plantations and using vast quantities of chemicals, which contaminated the ground water. The rain spread the chemicals throughout the area. Today, following relocations after El Salvador’s 1992 peace accords – there are many more families living there. The government refused to help, wanting the people to abandon the land, but members of the community led by the Church initiated a project to deliver clean water to each home, with volunteers laying the piping. “For some people it seemed like a lot of work for water – but they were the ones who didn’t believe that the water was poisoning them. Today most communities in the Lower Lempa have direct access to water.” Those people who drank the contaminated water for a long time are 45 percent more likely to suffer from kidney insufficiency.

3. A Hindu-run project building water pumps in villages managed to be sustainable by asking the villagers to pay for it collectively, and organize the upkeep of the pumps. In one village they declined to do so, and the project collected the pump and brought it to another village. Every other village has taken full responsibility for their tanks and bores.

4. Jordan is one of the 10 most water-scarce countries in the world, with only 150 m3 of water available per person The international limit to water poverty is 1000 m3, and Jordanians have just 3 percent of the water share of Western Europeans. The reason is the lack of rivers (today you can cross the Jordan in a single stride) and insufficient funding for water desalination. And the result is that each household gets water only one day a week. Richer families have cisterns, but poorer people can’t afford that. Most Jordanians are Sunni Muslims, and the Inter-Islamic Network on Water Resources Development and Management (INWRDAM) has been initiating innovative projects to help treat grey water and save fresh water throughout the country through understanding people’s Islamic traditional understanding of natural resources.

5. Nearly half of all Ethiopian youngsters do not receive even primary education, and the likelihood of receiving a high school education is of course even smaller, with just 23% of teenage boys and 13% of teenage girls enrolled in secondary schools. We heard about how - before the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) installed the fresh water pump in a village in Gondar, Ethiopia - most people drank water from a nearby stream. Like hundreds of villages around rural Ethiopia, Gondar’s Gabriel Kebele had no access to potable water for drinking, bathing, or cooking during the region’s extended dry seasons and draughts. JDC has constructed over a hundred produced hand dug wells, protected springs, taps, micro-dams, and latrines across Gondar through its International Development Program.

6. The Zoroastrians traditionally built special tanks which harvested rainwater during the wet season, to enable it to be used during the dry. We learned about the tanks of Bharuch in Gujarat, with details about how they were constructed – and allowed ourselves to speculate a little on the impact on people, and on household gardens, if this practice were to be reintroduced.

In this introduction we have given just one example from each of the faiths represented. But there is much more to find. On the faith side there are theological explorations of the role of water in each religion, as well as stories from India and Tanzania, some moving tales from a local Church helping sanitation in the Nairobi slums, and the African-American church which is supporting it.

There is an extraordinary story from the Batang Gadis National Park where Islamic students and teachers were so distressed that they could not get clean water for ritual washing that they campaigned and helped create a national park. And another from South Africa where Muslims in the townships sometimes have to stand for two hours before morning prayer to warm the water for ghusl (compulsory bath) as well as for ablution.

On the secular side we: learn about a disinfecting unit called the Naiade which runs on solar power; hear from the UK’s Department for International Development about their work with WASH (including a story from Pakistan); learn from our partner Ecological Management Foundation (EMF) about how micro-solutions to problems like the scarcity of clean water can sometimes have macro-effects, and saw some examples of that from the promoters of Micro-Water Facility and SMART TECHS; hear from the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) about how disease is spread through water, from UNICEF with an important story from Bangladesh, and from UNDP about how this all fits in with the Millennium Development Goals, and from the World Bank about how water, faith and education are absolutely linked.

Side by side, religious and secular shared stories, visions, hopes, plans and expertise and from this a new partnership has arisen. This is the first fruit of that partnership.

The conference was organized by ARC, with financial and organizational assistance from the EMF, and support from IRC. Thanks to all those who participated, and in particular to all those who were inspired to continue the initiative, and make changes happen

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