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UN World Water Day

Air Date: Week of

Kenyan schoolchildren gather round a new well at their school. Credit: Global Water Challenge

March 22nd is Water Day, designated by the United Nations as a time to call attention to water woes around the world. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Paul Faeth, executive director of Global Water Challenge, about some of the work non-profits are doing to bring water to communities in the developing world.


GELLERMAN: Water, water everywhere…we wish. Today, more than a billion people – one in five – lack a source of safe drinking water. And each day nearly four thousand kids die because of it. Well, March 22nd is World Water Day, something the United Nations ’s been organizing for the past 15 years. And it was three years ago on World Water Day that the UN launched the International Decade for Action: Water for Life – setting ambitious goals to bring safe water to those without.

Paul Faeth is executive director of the Global Water Challenge, a coalition of water and hygiene experts. Mr. Faeth, welcome to Living on Earth!

FAETH: Pleased to be with you today.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Faeth, what specifically are those goals?

FAETH: The goal is to get, for every country in the world, 75 percent of the people with access to safe drinking water.

GELLERMAN: And how well have we done to meet that goal?

FAETH: Well, pretty well, overall – it depends on where you’re at – in Asia for example, in places like India, in 1990, 71 percent of the people had coverage and now it’s 84 percent. But in Africa, it’s 58 percent now, up from 48 percent. So there’s definitely been progress, and since they declared World Water Day in 1992, additional one billion people had gotten access to clean and safe drinking water.

Angeline Allan (center left), a schoolteacher in Kenya, speaks with staff from CARE in front of her school. CARE and other nonprofit organizations are working to increase access to clean water and sanitation in developing countries. (Photo: Global Water Challenge)

GELLERMAN: You were talking about Africa. You’ve done a lot of work in Africa, am I right?

FAETH: Yes, we have.

GELLERMAN: We have a clip of tape. I want you to listen to this. It’s from someone your organization worked with there.

FAETH: Angelina Lahn

LAHN: When they are on their monthly periods, they don’t come to school at all, because of the lack of proper sanitation and lack of water, and they just drop out.

GELLERMAN: That’s a big hard to hear – but what she’s saying is that these girls are having their monthly periods and they drop out because of lack of water. What’s the connection?

FAETH: Well, girls like to have privacy and a safe place to use the bathroom when they’re having their periods. So what typically happens is that girls stay home for that one week out of the month. They drop behind in their classes, and after a while they simply drop out of school.

GELLERMAN: So what did your organization, Global Water Challenge, do about Angelina’s school in Kenya?

FAETH: Well, they – GWC in partnership with a number of other groups, such as CARE – developed a well, put in latrines, and brought in a hygiene program for kids to learn how to wash their hands and to keep themselves healthy.

Paul Faeth, executive director of Global Water Challenge, washes his hands at a new faucet at a school in Kenya. (Photo: Global Water Challenge)

I actually got a chance to visit the school that Angelina’s at and to see the kids, and she is the head mistress of this school, but she was head mistress of another school that was not far away for 18 years that didn’t have access to water and sanitation and a hygiene program. And the kids there were sick, and the girls missed school, and when she went across the street, basically to this new school, which now had a water and sanitation program, what she saw were – a couple of interesting things were – typically, there are many more boys in school than girls. In this school, 52 percent of the kids are girls, and 48 percent are boys. What they saw when they put the program in – uh, they had about 1000 kids in this school, and the absentee rate was about ten to 12 percent a month, largely due to diseases caused by dirty water – and after about five months of putting in the program, the absentee rate went down to one percent. Attendance went up, academic achievement went up and Angelina reports that the kids are easier to teach, and it’s basically been a huge success story for that particular school.

Kenyan schoolchildren gather round a new well at their school. (Photo: Global Water Challenge)

GELLERMAN: Would it be safe to say that breakthroughs in water and sanitation and hygiene have saved more lives than other medical breakthroughs put together?

FAETH: Well, according to a study that I saw that came out about six months ago, a group of scientists said that in the last 150 years, the greatest medical advance that we have seen is the advancement and application of sanitation. Getting clean water to people is thought to be the easiest way to improve health and economic prosperity in the developing world.

GELLERMAN: Paul Faeth is executive director of the Global Water Challenge. Well, Mr. Faeth, thank you very much.

FAETH: Thank you. I’m glad to be on the show.

GELLERMAN: Happy World Water Day!

FAETH: Thank you! Same to you.



Global Water Challenge


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