There are handwritten mathematical formulas all over the blackboard-style wall in Scott Harrison’s office. There are old records on the floor and children’s toys in the corner. But the most interesting thing about Harrison’s place of work is the abundance of industrial, plastic, yellow gas cans scattered around. Harrison — the founder of Charity Water, a non-profit that provides drinking water to people in developing nations, in part by raising money to dig wells — explains that these are called Jerry Cans. People who don’t have access to water in developing nations use them to haul and store their drinking water. They weigh about 40 pounds when they’re full.
Harrison, a former nightclub promoter and the author of Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World, keeps these cans around as a reminder of the 9.6 million people in 27 countries his organization has brought clean water to. And as a symbol of the work that needs to be done.
The World Health Organization reports that 844 million people lack even a basic drinking-water services, including 159 million people who are dependent on surface water, which is found in lakes, streams, and such. There's more bad news. Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, which can lead to disease and death.
These are disheartening stats that can make you look at your S'well bottle differently. When it comes to wellness, water is a staple — but it’s also taken for granted. Most of us with Western privilege don’t think about water as an obstacle. Many of us wish we could drink more of it, but our end game is more likely to be better skin and improved athletic performance. Some want to take water to the next level — you can buy an $84 bottle with an amethyst crystal inside that may or may not help improve your intuition.
Meanwhile, there are women and girls who spend up to eight hours a day walking to a water source to bring clean water to their families. Harrison explains that in nations like Mozambique, it’s primarily up to the women to provide water. At its core, the world water crisis is a women’s issue, he says.
“Time spent collecting water is time away from school and other activities that can help empower a community, particularly for young women and girls,” Harrison says. “The effect on education is notable – without access to clean water, one in four girls don’t complete primary school (compared to one in seven boys)... Water is so much more than just something to drink. Providing people with access to clean water is also a gateway to getting an education, growing income and improving health — especially for women and kids.”
This may make the water problem seem eons away, but it’s also in our backyard. Just look at the water crisis in Flint, MI. San Juana "Juani" Olivares — who was affected by the Flint water crisis and is the president and CEO of the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative - La Placita — says she’s “traumatized” when it comes to drinking water from a questionable sources.
“When I see people who don’t finish bottled water it breaks my heart,” Olivares says. “Water has become so precious now — it’s almost like our gold in Flint.”
The health issues that water problems have caused — in Flint and abroad — are dire. But not getting enough fresh water in general can have its own repercussions, too.“Water is important for your health and wellness for a multitude of reasons,” says Tessa Nguyen, RD, LDN, and the founder of Taste Nutrition Consulting. “Over 50 percent of our bodies are made up of fluid, which means it’s vital to consume enough water and fluids to keep us alive, functioning, and well. Drinking enough water also ensures our kidneys and livers can do their jobs in naturally ‘detoxing’ our bodies by filtering out waste products.”
Basically, water is important no matter who you are, where you live, and what your level of privilege and access is. The luckiest of us appreciate water for the little things it does. I asked Harrison: Is just appreciating water for the little things it does — like improving our skin or mile-time — small-minded? Is it selfish to think about these benefits when there are people who have to walk for hours for clean water?
“It definitely is not small minded to appreciate those things, in fact it’s the opposite!” Harrison said. “There’s a story I love to tell about a woman we met named Helen in northern Uganda. Like the other women in her community, Helen spent most of her day walking and waiting for her turn to collect water.” But once she had the water, she had to answer some tough questions: “How should I use this water today? Should I water my garden so we can grow food? Should I wash my children’s school uniforms? Should I use it to cook a meal? Should we drink this water?”
"With two children, one husband, and 10 gallons, she felt she never had enough and was always worried about prioritizing her rations correctly," Harrison says. "Often, the school uniforms didn’t get cleaned." But when Helen’s community got clean water for the first time after a well was put in, she no longer had to make those kinds of hard choices — she could even use it for herself. "Now I am beautiful," Helen said, according to Harrison.
“We were struck by that comment – and were reminded of how transformational water can be in both big and small ways,” he said. “It’s not just about health and sanitation, but about restoring someone’s dignity and making them feel beautiful for the first time.”