World Water Day, earlier this week on March 22, tells us not to take water for granted.
About five years ago Operation Eyesight realized that treatment and surgery alone were not going to win the battle to eliminate unnecessary blindness. Indeed the evidence was that a good deal of blindness could be prevented if we were prepared to think broadly about the root causes of unnecessary blindness.
We looked at what defined poverty and what were those elements of poverty that were directly linked to blindness. Actually, there are several, but there is one in particular – a nasty eye disease called trachoma that is the direct result of poor sanitation and, critically, the lack of clean water. We had been treating patients for trachoma in endemic areas in Africa for more than 20 years. Treatment included lid surgery to correct eyelids so disfigured that the eyelashes turn in and scrape the cornea, as well as antibiotic ointment to stop the bacteria. But repeatedly, the infections returned.
Operation Eyesight made a bold decision to change tactics and provide clean water to dry communities by providing “water points” – that is, water catchment devices and boreholes. This is a more expensive strategy on the front end but, by far, more effective and less costly, even in the midterm. Face washing is the key to keeping the bacteria away from the eyes and preventing infections. Today, our surveys in affected communities are proving that infections are decreasing dramatically and, one day soon, trachoma will be a thing of the past.
Just as gratifying are the other dramatic changes that water is bringing to previously dry communities. It truly is the first rung on the development ladder. Women are no longer making long treks to bring water back to their families – they have the time and the means to keep themselves and their families clean. Clean clothes and bodies reduce the incidence of skin and respiratory diseases. Communities are taking the initiative to plant gardens and feed starving children from communities hit by drought. They are also investigating new crops and making plans to pipe water to dry communities.
Water in a community means teachers will be willing to move there and offer education to the children for the first time. Some communities have even constructed large boarding facilities so children from other villages can benefit as well. Water in a dry community is like planting seeds in fertile soil. The community flourishes. It brings new life and opportunity. Social and economic development takes hold. Women are able to play a key role in the sustainability of the water resources and are central to the planning of community initiatives.
It’s achievements like this that World Water Day celebrates. Thanks for supporting Operation Eyesight’s efforts to bring eye health to people who lack it just because they don’t have ample water.