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Guest Voz: The most valuable tool poor people can have to combat effects of climate change

By Sarina Prabasi

On my first visit to Nicaragua, I was astonished by its beauty. I was headed to one of the most geographically and culturally isolated parts of the country, situated along the Miskito Coast. The marine life is unparalleled, the coastal rainforests second only to those in Brazil, and the rivers so abundant that they serve as one of the main means of transportation.

There is no lack of water in this region. And yet, when it comes to water fit for human consumption, Nicaragua — like so many countries around the world right now — is suffering one of the worst water shortages in recent history.

Last year, thousands of families waited in desperation for the relief of the May-to-October rainy season that simply didn’t come.

From the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the effect that extreme drought and floods are having on millions of people living in poor communities is clear. Water tables are dropping, shallow wells are drying up and drinking water is being contaminated by flood waters.

It’s a crisis that affects us all, but none so much as the 650 million people around the world who currently rely on unsafe, unprotected water sources.

More than anyone else, it’s women and girls who bear the brunt of the crisis: they are the ones typically forced to walk ever-longer distances to find water for themselves and their families, care for those who fall ill from preventable water-related diseases, and miss out on school and work simply because water and sanitation are not readily at hand.

Here’s the good news

In the face of much environmental uncertainty there is one thing we know for certain: people are more resilient to the effects of climate change when they have the skills and know-how to monitor, manage and protect the water resources that they do have.

Organizations like WaterAid, the leading international non-profit specifically dedicated to transforming lives by improving access to clean water, toilets and hygiene, are proving that it is possible for communities to successfully manage threats to their water resources, even in the most seemingly dire situations.

In Nicaragua and in dozens of communities around the world affected by extreme drought conditions, WaterAid is not only investing in water infrastructure such as water harvesting, boreholes, sand dams and improvements to existing wells, but also investing in local people — giving them the skills they need to become water experts adept at effectively managing their own precious resources.

It’s a strategy that’s working: by learning skills around water management, families are not only able to enjoy having clean water nearer to their homes and schools, but are also learning how to plan their water use in a way that guarantees they’ll have a steady supply of clean water for their basic needs even throughout the long dry seasons.

A critical part of building climate resilience is making sure that clean water is available to everyone, no matter the weather or environmental conditions. If we get this right, girls will be able to stay in school, women will have the time to start and run small businesses, and half of the world’s hospital beds will no longer be filled by people suffering from preventable water-related diseases.

That’s a future worth fighting for.

Sarina Prabasi is the Chief Executive of WaterAid America, the world’s largest international non-profit dedicated exclusively to helping the world’s poorest people gain long-term access to safe drinking water, toilets and effective hygiene education.

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