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John Hoffmire: Access to water is the first step in fighting poverty worldwide

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 7:30 a.m. MDT

An elephant-proof water tower in Mosiro, Kenya.

John Hoffmire

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In the past 25 years, over 2 billion people have gained access to improved sources of drinking water. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced the Millennium Development Goals for water had already been reached. The efforts of nonprofits, private businesses and governments are to be lauded for this great success.

Although, as a whole, the world is making significant progress, there are still regions that have seen little improvement. Most of these areas are in rural sub-Saharan Africa where women walk more than 3 miles on average each day to obtain water — some much more. Villages in these areas are almost always in poverty due to poor hygiene and weak economies, both of which are exacerbated by inadequate water sources.

Hygiene is compromised in water-poor areas due to the quality and distance of available water. Polluted water sources from animal waste, agricultural runoff and poor sanitation often harbor disease. Trachoma, an eye disease that can lead to blindness, is common as are cholera and dysentery. All three are largely preventable with access to a clean water source. The trek to obtain water can also be dangerous; individuals (usually women) are occasionally raped or killed as they go for water.

In addition to poor health, there is another stumbling block for these poor areas: the economy. Rural economies are based largely on farming and livestock production, both of which depend on a consistent water supply. Just one year of severe drought can be devastating to crops and livestock, setting the economy back and putting human lives at risk. Even regions that are climbing out of poverty can regress quickly due to severe drought.

In Africa, women and girls are typically responsible for obtaining water for the household. Consequently, girls are less likely to remain in school since they are needed to haul the necessary water for basic family needs. The lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty and contributes to the gender education gap. Without water, the future is bleak for these girls and women.

But there is hope. Many organizations around the world have helped provide clean water to hundreds of millions of people. In 2010, the Rotary Foundation began a water project in Mosiro, Kenya. Within two years of completion, trachoma had been almost entirely eliminated, acres of crops could be irrigated consistently, and 200 animals could be watered per hour. This water source now provides the stability necessary to grow the local economy.

In Mosiro, health, education and the economy have all improved as a consequence of the enhanced water source. Children have time to go to school, women have time to plant, tend crops, bead and pursue other entrepreneurial ventures. School enrollment in Mosiro increased from 230 to 750, and 51 percent of the students are girls (compared to the former 23 percent). The local clinic hired permanent staff, and health in the surrounding villages has been improved. The community was invested in the project from the very beginning, provided human resources and directed the development of the educational infrastructure. The future is looking brighter in Mosiro.

Each day, nearly 200 million hours are spent collecting water worldwide — that is enough people-hours to build more than 25 Empire State Buildings each day. With so many hours spent on water collection, it is little wonder that these regions struggle to pull themselves out of poverty. Although there is no set path out of deprivation, a first step could certainly be a clean and dependable water source.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the School of Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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