When the Wells Run Dry

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It’s a common saying that you never miss the water until the well runs dry.  Well, year after year, this adage plays out in countless communities across Liberia. As Saran Kaba Jones, CEO and Founder of the WASH NGO FaceAfrica, puts it, “It begins with WATER.”

From water to tend our crops, to water used for cooking, cleaning and personal hygiene, from water for construction, to water used in washing our hands to prevent the spread of disease, every single sector of human endeavor thrives on the availability, accessibility and affordability of water. 

As a nation and a people, we may lack many things but one thing we can all agree on is that water is not one of them. Our vast transboundary rivers, beautiful lakes, seemingly endless rainfall and abundant groundwater supply so readily accessible by means of hand-dug wells are all reflections of how endowed Liberia is in freshwater resources. Within and along our national boundaries, non-saline water exists in such volumes that it could literally re-vegetate the Sahara. What seems to be lacking is the adequate means to convert this vastly abundant, untreated, under-utilized natural resource into safe, sufficient and accessible water that meets World Health Organization standards for drinking, domestic and agriculture use. That, unfortunately, is where we fall short.

Needless to say, if the Ebola outbreak has taught us anything, it has reminded each of us of the importance of potable water in minimizing the spread of disease. Just take a look around you, almost every single home, office, public gathering, and place of worship or leisure nationwide now has a bucket of chlorinated water for mandatory hand-washing at the entrance. The now instilled habit of washing our hands has become so common a practice in our daily lives in the fight against the deadly EVD that most people are left feeling very uncomfortable without. No doubt, water has been in the forefront of it all.

While significant strides have been made in the fight against Ebola nationwide, as we strive to put an end to this gruesome chapter and hopefully revive the dormant sectors of our society, the critical concern surrounding sustained access to potable water nationwide cannot be ignored. Families need water to drink, to cook, to clean, and most importantly, in the continued fight against Ebola, to wash their hands.

As we approach the peak of yet another dry season, when the water table tends to drop and shallow wells and surface water sources run dry, history will sadly repeat itself, leaving thousands across Liberia to scramble for water for months on end. Some way, somehow, the lingering question of the availability, accessibility and affordability of safe water must be answered.

One proactive approach would be to strategically ensure that people have sustained access to sufficient water at the domestic and community levels. In areas where annual water shortage is known to be very high, it is recommended that local authorities, relevant line ministries and the NGO community consider contingency measures such as: 1) drilling of boreholes as opposed to shallow hand-dug wells — which have a tendency to run dry by February-March; 2) water trucking and establishing of chlorinated service points in various communities, where necessary; 3) the provision and administration of chlorine at hand-pumps, wells and other water sources known to remain viable throughout the dry months; and 4) routine testing of drinking water sources for chlorine residual and bacterial contamination as a protective means of preventing other potential water-borne illnesses such as cholera and diarrhea.  As a caveat, these measures should be employed with advice from a WASH specialist, as water situations are unique from one location to the next. 

The proposed water testing exercises can be coordinated through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare making use of its existing Environmental Health Technicians in the various counties. These few strategies, though not exhaustive in nature, can help contribute to on-going WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) efforts and ensure that all citizens continue to observe the basic yet highly protective public health measure of regular hand-washing.

While the Ebola death tolls may have considerably decreased nationwide, the need to maintain the gains made thus far cannot be overemphasized. According to the United Nations, “Water is critical for sustainable development, including environmental integrity and the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and is indispensable for human health and well-being.”

Let’s not wait until the wells run dry to acknowledge the critical role potable water has played in the national and regional fight against Ebola.  Let’s not wait for severe water shortages to realize that in a water-scarce situation, a mother would most likely opt to cook a pot of rice with a single bucket of water to feed her children as opposed to or using that same water just to wash hands.

As a nation, a people, policy makers, policy enforcers, service providers, caregivers, health workers, opinion leaders, aid community, let’s chart a new course this New Year and move away from trying to find cures to problems we can readily prevent.  French Environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau once said, “We have the ability to provide clean water for every man, woman and child on the Earth. What has been lacking is the collective will to accomplish this.”  Cousteau argues that addressing the elusive question of potable water for all year round is possible, but he concludes by asking, “What are we waiting for?”  Let’s not wait to miss the water, only when the wells run dry.

Magdalene Matthews holds an M. Sc in Environmental Health from the Harvard School of Public Health, Cyprus International Institute; She is also the Author of RISE! Redeeming the Future of Liberia, a Practical Guide to Self-Development.

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