Need to catch up with Part 1? Click Here.

In the last entry, I mentioned two sorts of water problems in my area: not enough and too much. “Not enough” refers to the drought we’re facing following the complete failure of the “shorts rains” and insidious delay of the “long.” Too much … well, in light of that last statement, it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

On one of my first days here, I skipped into the clinic one morning to find everything in a state of semi-controlled chaos. The waiting area was overflowing with patients, most of them mothers with gaggles of crying or listless children. I ducked into the exam room and asked one of the nurses in charge what was going on; he said with enormous weariness in his voice, “It rained the night before last.”

Oh. Right. Heavy rain = surface runoff = well contamination = high bacterial load = waterborne illnesses like diarrhea. And for 6 million per year (that’s about 16,500 a day, or 12 in the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph), diarrhea = death.

One of the greatest victories at site so far, in my estimation, has been getting primary schools to embrace “leaky tin” projects. I may have mentioned these before, but if not, here goes: it’s an old jug with a nail in the bottom. You pull out the nail and use the resulting flow of water to wash your hands. Absurdly simple, right? Well, yeah, that’s the point – it’s an easy way to promote handwashing in a place many miles from the nearest piped water. Children who wash their hands are less likely to develop diarrhea and die. Families where handwashing before meals is encouraged are less likely to face cholera, a bacterial illness that most Americans of my generation know only from playing the “Oregon Trail” computer game but in fact routinely ravages villages in the developing world. The last cholera outbreak in my area, according to community health records? Oh, it was April or May … 2010.

Hang a jug. Save a life.

Of course, handwashing isn’t the be-all end-all solution to the problems of diarrhea and dysentery. Water quality itself must also be addressed. I’m working with the organization AMREF to improve/protect vulnerable wells, as well as to set up community councils to oversee the (sustainable) maintenance of these vital water points. But these projects aren’t instantaneous: it takes weeks to locate the “right” well, weeks to discuss water issues with the community, weeks to find key community leaders willing to be part of the council, and all this before the improvement construction projects can lay the first cinderblock. These are necessary and normal steps to ensuring that any project “sticks,” but it adds up to MONTHS of time wherein people are relying completely on questionable or unsafe water. Disease continues to spread in fits and bursts, and the rainy season looms close on the horizon.

Educating people about water issues and promoting water point maintenance is a process, not a goal. There is ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE that I will leave in two years saying “TA DA! FIXED! AWESOME! Now to solve climate change with my BARE HANDS back in America.” So faced with these kinds of hardships, what’s an American 20-something to do?

Stay tuned for part 3.