Schools closed. Restaurants closed. Stores shelves emptied. In fact, most of the businesses in the city and surrounding counties shut down. The federal government joined the state in declaring a disaster. Emergency relief agencies poured into the affected area. This disaster “put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, disrupted our region’s economy, and upended people’s daily lives,” said a top government official.
Although disasters are often associated with earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or fire, this disaster was the result of the contamination of a water source that serviced 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia in 2014. For weeks, the people of West Virginia experienced something that affected every area of their lives--the lack of easy access to safe water. In a country where a simple twist of a faucet fills sinks, bathtubs, and washing machines with a seemingly unending supply of water, the abrupt cessation of this resource highlighted America’s usage and attitude toward water. Water, we were reminded, is not unlimited. Families in West Virginia were purchasing water by the gallon and planning how every ounce could best be used. To supplement bottled water, residents placed large buckets outside their homes to catch rainwater. Long lines formed at public water distribution centers. Although government officials and agencies tried their best to remedy the situation quickly, the lack of information about the chemical contaminant frustrated their efforts. Also, they had little or no experience with water contamination of this magnitude. Because the response from government agencies wasn’t quick enough, people had to learn how to do something they could not imagine to be a possibility in the 21st century--live without an ample supply of water.
In a small way and for a short time, the 300,000 residents of West Virginia experienced the reality of water deprivation. For several weeks, water the was topic of most of their conversations. Entire families took part in the task of finding, collecting and conserving water. But when the need for water became critical or the time without water went too long, people could get in their cars and drive out of town. Within minutes, they could be in a place where water gushed from park fountains, sprinklers watered lawns, and dust was washed off of cars.
But this is where the shared experience between the people of West Virginia (people in the first world), and the people of the third world ends. In Uganda, where 9.3 million lack access to safe water, there is no escape from the hardship. In rural Ugandan villages, the post-typhoon city of Leyte, in The Philippines, or the urban slums of India, finding, collecting and storing clean, safe water is a major part of everyday existence. As an organization that works in parts of the developing world that lack access to safe water, we recognize our need to be prepared, trained, and experienced in various aspects of water engineering.
On our property in Nashville, twelve water tanks are situated on the side of one of our buildings. I interviewed Josh Kurtz, a member of our organization, who was inspired to design this water-catchment project after his family spent several months in Uganda. From design to construction, the fully functioning water-catchment system has the capacity to harvest nearly 60,000 gallons of water annually. Stored rainwater is now the major source of irrigation for our community garden, saving us $6,000 annually in city water charges.
The same techniques and technology on our property in Nashville were also utilized to build a water-catchment system in Uganda. Their tank is able to hold 2,100 gallons of water, which is utilized for showering, washing dishes, laundering clothes, and crop irrigation. The savings that our water-catchment system here in Nashville affords us is primarily financial. We save money by harvesting rainwater. However, for our friends in Uganda, the benefit goes well beyond any monetary savings. In the area where we installed the water-catchment system, the closest water source was a borehole a mile away. The availability of water right on one’s own property saves time and bodily harm, especially to women and children. Many children, whose parents are working, are restricted from attending school regularly because of the time-consuming daily chore of getting water for their family. Or, if they attend school, a few hours of their school day is spent fetching water so that the school can prepare lunch.
In more ways than one, the ability to harvest rainwater is improving life for people in desperate areas of the world. It is more economical to construct a water harvesting system than to dig wells. Modeling safe harvesting systems on individual homes is a sustainable and duplicable solution to the systemic water problem. The help we offer in these water-deprived areas must succeed. We do not experiment with the life and livelihood of disadvantaged people because we lack knowledge, training and experience. We have first-hand knowledge of wells in Ugandan villages, drilled by well-intended NGOs, that are inoperable, inadequate or contaminated shortly after the project is completed. Acknowledging the adverse effect of poor planning, our philosophy of development focuses on the knowledge, training and experience of workers before they implement programs and technologies in these areas.
The practice of collecting and storing water during the rainy season demonstrates wisdom—the kind of wisdom that Joseph exemplified in the book of Genesis. Joseph proposed a plan to the king of Egypt to gather and store food during the “good years” so as to have a “reserve for the land against the seven years of famine…so that the land [people] may not perish through the famine,” (41:36). Joseph employed the wisdom of emergency reserves for the preservation of life. Uganda is not getting ready for a water famine, it already exists. The people of Uganda have had to accept the fact that water reserves will be limited, at best, during the dry season. But lacking essential life-giving resources is not acceptable. We can make a difference by responding, not just to crisis situations, but to the ever-constant water issue in Uganda. We can and must provide an environment that is affordable, sustainable, and sufficient for the water needs of families in need.
To give towards one of our water projects, please visit the Nu Water Works page.