Worldwide, a child dies every 90 seconds from water-borne illnesses. Yet Americans can turn on faucets and fill glasses with water largely unafraid—and unaware—of the many diseases borne by contaminated water.
In February 2021, however, Texans all became aware of the importance of clean water as pipes froze and water treatment plants were without power. In February 2022, Austin’s water treatment plant failed to treat water, due to a human error. This caused a boil notice that lasted more than three days. Of course, Austinites rushed to the store, grabbed a case or two of bottled water, and went about their normal days without too much of an interruption.
With these few exceptions, we simply don’t have to think much about our water. But women and children around the globe will spend 200 million hours collecting water for their families. They’ll fetch far less than the average American’s water use of 82 gallons a day, but their burdens are heavy, as they also collect water for their animals and crops. And today alone, almost 1,000 children will die because of contaminated water.
The lesson here is that water—and the energy to draw it, clean it and transport it—are bare necessities of life and key ingredients in human flourishing. Without electricity, life expectancies are fully 20 years shorter than in countries that have access. In Malawi, where less than 10% of the population has access to energy, the average man can’t expect to live past 57.
Without electricity, girls cannot spend as much time in school. Uzzaya Idris, a 13-year old girl in Nigeria described her own experiences: “Most of the time, by the time I get back, lessons have already started. And sometimes, by the time I get to school, it’s already break time.” Mothers know that the precarious journey to get water keeps their girls, primarily, from obtaining an education.
Without electricity, there is no running water being pulled from the ground to be readily available in homes. Without electricity, children spend, on average, 19.5 hours every week doing household chores. The chore that takes up the most time is walking to collect water.
Even 5-year-olds must do their part in providing water for the family, even if it’s just enough to fill a tea kettle, as little Cheru did in Kenya before clean water was brought to her village.
This isn’t about climate change, though some on the left try to make it about that, saying that “climate crises have made this work [collecting water] more difficult and more dangerous.” Others also argue that “Gendered roles in much of the world also make women more susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change,” explicitly linking gender inequality to climate change.
But the reality of the 2 billion people without access to clean, safe water is not shaped by climate change. Humans can always innovate to combat the warming climate, but there is no other way to eradicate poverty around the world than to ensure access to water and electricity. Energy poverty is shaped by lack of access to energy and clean water, as “Every day is shaped by the walk for water.”
When water is brought to a village, everything changes. When water came to a village in Kenya, a mother said about her 5-year-old daughter, “She can go to school early and study well, wear clean clothes, and not be tired or sick….To drink clean water and keep your children clean, this is a good life.”