Its is subtle. It is insidious. It creeps up on you, surprises you really.
I used to think of water as something to drink on a humid day, or after an hour on the elliptical machine, when I have the cotton mouth that goes with the rubbery legs.
That all changed the summer I turned 40, when I traveled to West Africa. I was there with World Vision to shoot a part-documentary, part-fundraising film smack dab in the middle of the Sahara Desert. I left a naive ex-teacher of a class of smart, well-fed 10-year-olds and returned forever changed.
That first morning back, I opened my closet doors to choose something to wear to work, like I had done a million times before. But this time, I just stood there in silence, frozen. Paralyzed by the sheer number of insane choices before me. And the tears welled up.
It was too much.
Too much stuff.
When I had arrived home from my 12-hour flight from Paris to New York to L.A., I dropped my luggage inside the door. I walked from room to room, turning the light switch on, off, on again, in awe of the control I had regained over light and dark. In Mali, we were without electricity most days, and many nights from midnight to 6 am.
At the kitchen sink, I turned on the faucet and the water poured out on command. I put my palm out to feel the generous stream of pure, cold water.
In the end, it was the water that got me.
Stories from the desert
I went to sub-Saharan Africa to understand what was happening to children and families impacted by drought, water wars and locust infestations that destroyed their meager crops. But most of all, to put faces on the devastating numbers. As a writer, I wanted to hear the stories so I could tell them better when I got home.
Time and time again, I found that the story was water. How having it meant food for the table and healthy, disease-free kids. How not having it meant dehydration and disease and death.
Though water was scarce—$5 a bottle in the Niger hotel stay on the way over—when it spilled in my bag in the airport and drenched my clothes, I was more annoyed than saddened by the fact that a bottle of good, clean water was gone.
I could always get another bottle.
Even at the adobe house that was our home base in Mali, we had hot water the night we arrived, but no cold, and the next morning, when it was time for a bath, no water at all. Still, it was just the inconvenience of no bath.
But soon I would see.
Water can keep people alive
I saw a miracle in the desert. World Vision projects in Mali that were helping people plant crops with water pumped from the Niger River into the dry Sahara to grow luscious fields of bright, green rice.
I was lucky enough to be in Senegal the day the drilling paid off and about a dozen kids laughed and clapped and danced in the water that had sprung up. They were celebrating.
Water can kill
On my way to Mali, I spent a night in northern Senegal, close to the Mauritania border. At the time, Mauritanian cattle herders and Senegalese farmers were clashing over rights to the water in the Senegal River, which divides the two countries.
The conflict would eventually leave thousands dead, many more displaced and a massive refugee crisis as people fled their homes on the Mauritanian side across the river to Senegal.
I slept in my compound that night with an armed guard stationed at the door, for precautionary measures, my boss said. There had been killings in Dakar and the U.S. Embassy was keeping an eye on things, in case we needed to be evacuated.
And so I learned that sometimes wars—and refugee crises— happen over something as basic as water. And it is the often the children who suffer the most.
Why we should care: the story of Abadou
It was already 106 degrees when I climbed into the jeep with the film crew for the 10-kilometer drive across the desert to the CREN (a mobile health hospital for infants and children).
Our assignment: to follow the doctors and tell their stories, which would eventually be pieced together in a documentary. We had to get in and out quickly, before the the midday heat, before the predicted sandstorm could muck up the video equipment Hank, our cameraman, was so worried about.
But our plans were about to change.
I first saw Abadou on a floor mat inside the CREN. He had twig-like legs and hands no bigger than golf balls. His head hung to one side, his eyes glazed over. He was one year old, but looked no more than three or four months.
Abadou had severe diarrhea, had not taken anything by mouth for four days. The water he had been drinking was full of disease. Intavenous electrolyte solution was his only hope.
His father, Muhammed, sat cross-legged in a flowing robe, stroking the boy’s head with two of his fingers.
Dirty water and diarrheal diseases kill 1,000 children a day, the equivalent of 90 school buses filled with kindergartners carried over a cliff to their deaths. And Abadou was close to becoming another victim.
John, the project doctor, called out orders I didn’t understand. He pulled IV tubes from his bag, and a bottle of clear solution. He pushed the needle into Abadou’s arm.
Muhammed rose and pulled at the edge of his robe. “Why? Why do you do that?”
“It’s the only way to save your son,” Dr. John said.
“If Allah allows it, my boy will live,” Muhammed said in a remarkably calm voice. He turned back to his son.
“Maybe Allah wants me to help Abadou, so he doesn’t die,” Dr. John said. “Maryah will show you how to give this medicine to your son.”
He put three oral rehydration packets in Muhammed’s hand and pressed his fingers closed. With this treatment, Abadou would live.
It struck me how brave Abadou’s father was in the face of disaster.
We wrapped our filming and rode silently back to our compound, each of us lost in their own thoughts.
One Year Later
After the trip, the team scattered, all of us busy with new projects. One year later, each of us received a card in the mail from Robin, the producer on our Africa team. We were invited to her condo in Malibu— for Abadou’s second birthday party.
We sat on the floor, munching Cheetos, telling our Mali stories.
“Do you remember when we drove the jeep across the dunes of the Sahara singing American Pie?” Hank said. We did.
“Did anyone print up that tee-shirt we said we all wanted: WAWA (West Africa Wins Again)?” I said. No one did.
The conversation turned to Abadou.
So how is he?” I said.
The room was quiet, except for the whapping of the ceiling fan.
Robin pointed to the photos on the wall. “See for yourself. He’s gained 12 pounds in one year. He’s such a fighter.”
We learned that Abadou now had a sponsor, so he had meals, immunizations and wellness care. And the community got tools and training to grow their rice crops.
Robin disappeared, returning with a chocolate cake that had a blue squiggly message: “Happy Birthday, Adadou.”
We raised our glasses to a two-year-old boy 6,000 miles away and toasted him.
The boy at death’s door had lived.
Did I learn anything from my first trip to a third world country, aside from a profound appreciation for what I had in my modest, but complete little house in the foothills of Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Mountains?
I thought that water was a basic, unalienable right, but I learned that 1.8 billion people around the world must drink water that is fecally contaminated.
I thought I knew how to tell the stories—until I saw just one frail, sweet-faced child whose life was saved by an injection. Until I could put faces to the numbers, I wasn’t telling the whole story.
The human side of it.
The 3 Es: How to Understand How Water Affects Health
What can I do? What can any of us do?
A few posts ago, when I talked about teaching kids about social justice, I wrote about the 3 Es. It was a three-step process for getting to the place where you feel comfortable enough to take action. It’s about Empathy, Education and Empowerment.
The incredible part is that they aren’t just for children.
Some things you can do.
Goal 6, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation, is one piece the United Nations Global Goals Campaign. You can learn more about Goal 6 here.
Here are some easy things you can do build empathy and educate and empower yourself and your family:
To find out what’s happening around the world, follow the hashtag #globalgoals on twitter.
Follow a few people and organizations on Twitter. Try @UN, @LeoDiCaprio (yes, the actor), or #GlobalDaily.
Share this (all you have to do is click on one of the social share buttons at the top of this post) and other stories with your social networks.
Hold your legislators’ feet to the fire. (Do they believe in climate change, for instance?)
If you have a business, revisit your values statement and consider creating a social purpose.
Find one goal for your family to learn more about.
Download the United Nations Global Goals Parent Guide.
Buy your holiday cards from UNICEF.
Okay. What was the one thing I forgot to be thankful for?
Water. It was water.