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Educate. Empower. Act. The mission of Project WET is to reach children, parents, educators and communities of the world with water education. We invite you to join us in educating children about the most precious resource on the planet — water.
It's a big week for water and sanitation.
Today is Global Handwashing Day, celebrated around the world to bring attention to the importance of clean hands for health. It's also change.org's Blog Action Day, a 24-hour period where more than 4,000 bloggers around the world will opine on a single topic. This year that topic is water.
On Wednesday here in Washington DC, high-level US government, NGO and UN representatives gathered in a not-so-virtual way at an event, "Raising Clean Hands", to reaffirm the US commitment to bringing water and sanitation facilities to schools in developing world through WASH in Schools. This pledge of commitment is good news, and comes not a moment too soon for the mothers, fathers, boys and girls in communities like Nthalire, Malawi.
A very few years ago while living in Malawi, I helped to design a community hygiene education program in a remote northern region called Nthalire. The idea was to dispatch Community Educators for several months to various schools to train teachers, government extension workers and community members in basic hygiene information and practices: hand washing, proper latrine use, how diseases are spread, drinking water purification, and proper food storage.
Nthalire is not easy to reach. To get there, you drive up the paved highway from Lilongwe for about 5 hours. Then you veer off onto a dirt road that climbs steeply up towards the Nyika Plateau, a high grassland that is one of the least populated places in Malawi. Nearing the top of Nyika, the road deteriorates, with giant potholes and crevasses that require a four-wheel drive and a very careful driver. Once across the plateau, the road plunges down the other side, eventually snaking into Nthalire area.
On the way down, a breathtaking landscape rolls by: hundred-meter waterfalls, tree-lined hills rolled out like carpets, and the still African sky. As we finally pulled into Nthalire near sunset, relieved and dusty, there was not much more to disturb the air than a few chickens squawking, women singing, and kids laughing as they kicked around a ball made from plastic bags. Thatched huts dotted the area, and as our car kicked up dirt through "town," we could see a couple of vendors, selling cooking oil and salt, lighting their kerosene lamps in the hopes of an evening sale.
That night, I remember, the sunset was spectacular, throwing red and yellow fire across the plateau from which we had just descended. And as I sat on the front step, I thought about how little, and at the same time how much, the world gives to her inhabitants. And about how much, and how little, as people we can do to make any difference.
In Nthalire, we visited schools and talked to headmasters and students, teachers and parents. It's amazing how resilient people can be, even in the face of an appalling lack of basic human needs like water. At the same time it's amazing how confined they are without those fundamental things. Their universe remains small, because everything depends upon a source of water. People can't take baths, they can't wash their clothes. They can't clean the pit latrine or their babies' bottoms. Water, whatever its quality, is a precious commodity - to be planned for, waited for, fought for, and worked for.
And then it must be rationed out to drink - in small, sporadic amounts. Children skip school to fetch it. Sick mothers lug heavy buckets on their heads and babies on their backs to get it. Headmasters shrug their shoulders at low school attendance, pupils itching at scabies, and students clutching their stomachs from diarrhea. "What can we do," they asked us, "without water?"
But still, people laugh. One of my favorite moments of that trip happened one early morning during a visit at Therere Primary School. Walking back to our car after meeting the headmaster and the village chief, we accumulated an entourage of about 200 kids, all of whom wanted to look at us, to touch us, to wave, and to practice their few English phrases. "Momma!" they would call. I'd turn around, and the whole crowd would shriek with laughter. "Dadda!" they would call, and when we would turn around, the same reaction again.
Finally, after thanking our hosts, we got into the car and began to wave goodbye. As we did the kids began to wave wildly: "Good night!" they screamed, jumping up and down. "Good night!" as we drove out onto the road into the early morning air. "Good night!"
In Washington DC, we feel worlds away from those kids in Malawi, and we are. But we all share the same world - and we ought to share the same human rights. With increased commitment from the US government and global donors to help provide safe water and sanitation, thousands of children in Nthalire, and places like it, will have a greater chance at health, dignity, and opportunity.
What's simple, affordable and can reduce your risk of illness by 45 percent?
Proper hand washing with soap, of course. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control call hand washing "the best way to prevent infection and illness."
The trouble is that not everyone washes their hands--and even those who do often fail to do so effectively or frequently enough. Fortunately, learning how and when to wash your hands is easy. Convincing everyone to do it? Well, that's more challenging.
Global Hand Washing Day, which will be observed tomorrow, is an effort to do just that. Around the world, hand washing could save millions of lives-if it becomes a habit. As the Global Hand Washing Day 2010 site explains,
"Turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter."
One easy-and surprisingly effective-way to promote hand washing is simply to remind people to do it. Putting up hand washing education posters in bathrooms and near other sinks has been shown in studies to increase hand washing rates, and the more people follow the suggestions, the more of a habit hand washing becomes when the poster is not around.
To celebrate Global Hand Washing Day and to promote clean hands for everyone, Project WET is offering a free, colorful, downloadable 11x17 poster that can be used in schools, daycares, homes and offices.
For more hand washing activities, you can also download a FREE copy of Project WET's children's activity book, Healthy Water, Healthy Habits, Healthy People.
Project WET was one of nearly 30 organizations involved in "Raising Clean Hands"--a campaign launched today in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate that providing water, sanitation and hygiene education in schools globally can help solve the WASH and education challenge around the world. Through this campaign, and an exhibit called "Bathroom Pass," Project WET and the other organizations highlighted the solutions they are currently implementing and urged the U.S. Government, the World Bank, and other actors in the education and health sectors to bring WASH to schools in the developing world. The campaign estimates that children around the world lose 443 million school days each year because of diseases associated with a lack of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). More than half of schools in developing countries lack adequate WASH facilities.
United States Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero was the keynote speaker at the event, which was held at the Academy for Educational Development (AED).
Organizations supporting the event included Action Against Hunger, AED, Basic Education Coalition, CARE, CRS, Children Without Worms, Global Environment & Technology Foundation, Global Water Challenge, H2O for Life, Millennium Water Alliance, PATH, Plan USA, Project WET, PSI, Ryan's Well Foundation, Save the Children, UNICEF, USAID, US Fund for UNICEF, WaterAid, Water Advocates, Water and Sanitation Program, Water Centric, Water For People and World Water Relief.
To kick of the week of Global Handwashing Day, here's "Dancing in the Loo," a funny little video with a very important message about washing your hands:
This short film won last year's Golden Poo Awards, a contest sponsored by Poop Creative and The London International Animation Festival (LIAF).
All this week, the Project WET blog will be devoted to Global Handwashing Day, culminating with our release of a new, free handwashing poster as well as our participation in numerous festivities in Washington, D.C. Keep checking back for more fun all week!