When filthy water steals the lives of young children

On World Water Day, March 22, we remember parents like Kuma in Ethiopia. This father of three has sickness in his eyes and sorrow in his heart. He lost a 2-year-old daughter to waterborne disease. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are among the most common preventable causes of death for children under 5.

By Kari Costanza
Published March 18, 2013 at 12:00am PDT

Kuma Wanboru squints as he walks in the bright Ethiopian sunshine, hauling a yellow jerry can up the hill toward his home. The 50-pound canister is heavy, but Kuma carries an even weightier burden.

He is going blind.

The 32-year-old father of three children — a boy named Teddy and two little girls — has trachoma, a disease common in places where water is both filthy and scarce. Kuma couldn’t wash the chlamydia bacteria from his eyes, and now it is scratching his corneas.

His eyelashes are beginning to fall out.

A story of tragedy

The water in Kuma’s village, Weldo Telfam in central Ethiopia, is the community’s worst enemy. Villagers draw from a stream shared by donkeys, cows, and goats. They also use it for bathing and washing clothes.

It has leeches that grow inside a person when ingested. That’s what happened to Kuma.

This sorrowful atmosphere is not what Kuma wants for his family. “My children are [always] sick,” he says. “I am always taking them to health facilities for treatment.”

He watches his children’s health like a hawk, for his heart has already been broken. Two years ago, his daughter, Chaltu, died of waterborne disease. Kuma describes her as full of life. “I was sick about it,” he says.

Chaltu was only 2. His two surviving daughters are just 2 months old and 3 years old.

A father’s prayer

Often, Teddy has to fetch water before and after school. It takes the 7-year-old boy an hour to do it each time.

“If I have pure drinking water, I could go to school and study and not get sick,” he says. “And I could play football.”

His father shares the same desire: a water source that won’t harm his family. “My prayer to God has always been to get safe drinking water for my family and the community,” Kuma says, “so our children will live a safe and healthy life. A life without sickness and death for our children.”

In rural settings, like Kuma’s village, only 26 percent of Ethiopia’s 82.8 million people have access to clean water. More than 80 percent of all childhood diseases in Ethiopia are linked to unsafe drinking water, poor hygiene, and open defecation. In the developing world, these factors are among the most common preventable causes of death for children under 5.

Working to save lives

In Ethiopia, World Vision is addressing the problem with an menu of solutions — employing drilling rigs for digging deep and shallow wells, capping springs to safely deliver water to accessible points in villages, and sinking boreholes to supply clean water from underground.

World Vision is even teaching local crews to manually dig shallow wells in places like Melka Belo, in Ethiopia’s dry eastern region. World Vision supplies the materials and pays each driller 1500 birr (U.S. $81) per well. So far, the Melka Belo team has drilled 14 shallow wells, serving 7,200 people in the area.

Because Ethiopia has so many sources of water to choose from, World Vision’s water engineers can tailor their approach to a specific community’s needs. That’s good news to fathers like Kuma, for whom clean water would not be luxurious, but lifesaving.

Plans are underway to cap a spring to serve Kuma’s community of 6,000 with clean water. Teddy now has a sponsor who recently provided a water filter for the family.

“I want to have my children grow strong and happy and healthy,” says Kuma.

For this loving father in the heart of Ethiopia who only wants the best for his wife and children, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Learn more

Read more about World Vision’s clean water and sanitation programs.

Four ways you can help

Please pray for children, families, and communities who suffer because they lack access to safe water and sanitation — and ask God to answer Kuma’s prayer for these basic resources that can keep his family healthy.

Make a one-time donation to World Vision’s Survive to Five Challenge. Children under age 5, like Kuma’s daughters, are the most vulnerable to preventable causes of death, like waterborne illness; and children who live past their fifth birthdays see their odds for survival increase dramatically. Your gift will triple in impact to help save the lives of young children through interventions like clean water and sanitation projects.

GIve monthly to support World Vision’s water and sanitation programs. Your monthly donation will help reach even more children, families, and communities with projects like deep wells, water storage equipment, and piping and purification systems.

Contact your members of Congress. Urge them to cosponsor the Water for the World Act. This critical legislation would build upon the investments that the United States is making to improve global access to clean water and sanitation.