Fighting a pandemic: 4 long-lasting ways to give toward water and sanitation

Wash your hands. Twenty seconds. Don’t forget to use soap. Repeat. Hand-washing reminders are ubiquitous all over the globe, uniting us across oceans and borders. But for many people in our world, clean hands are a luxury.

In my work as a philanthropic adviser, I interact with many generous people looking for ways to respond to the crisis going on in our world. And research shows that they (and others like them) want to make a difference that’s strategic and lasting. There are plenty of ways to give that might achieve that, but experts have declared water and sanitation among the most strategic.

The UN chair for water recently said, “As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, the consequences of chronic underinvestment in water and sanitation services for billions of people are becoming abundantly clear. Right now, the global focus is on helping families to survive this disease outbreak. But even as we get on top of the pandemic and save as many lives as possible, we need to build resilience for the future.”

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, the consequences of chronic underinvestment in water and sanitation services for billions of people are becoming abundantly clear.

For an under-resourced world fighting COVID-19 and other diseases, water and sanitation are essential to survival.

Last fall, my daughter joined me in traveling to Nicaragua with a group of generous donors and the organization ORPHANetwork. We were able to see first-hand some of the best practices that were being used to decrease infant mortality, promote childhood wellness and education, and build up the economic infrastructure of these rural communities. We participated in food distribution, community meals, after-school tutoring, health training sessions and gatherings of local church leaders who are guiding their communities in sustainable transformation.

While we were on the trip, I could see that my daughter was deeply impacted. Our family has traveled a lot together, and my husband and I believe that one of the best ways we can invest in our girls is to expose them to God’s work in the world around us.

On this trip, I could see my daughter processing the vast discrepancies between the world she is growing up in and the world we were immersed in that week.

That was a month before her 16th birthday. Given all that was going on in her heart and mind, we knew she wouldn’t want a big pile of birthday gifts when we got home. Instead, I asked ORPHANetwork what the greatest need was that we could potentially fund as a gift for my daughter’s birthday. Their Executive Director responded immediately: hand-washing stations were an urgent need in those rural communities.

So, on her 16th birthday, my daughter opened up a photo of a newly built, cement handwashing station that would offer every person in that Nicaraguan village easy access to what they needed to keep their hands clean. The huge smile on her face was priceless.

That was in December. It was just a few months later, as COVID-19 began spreading rampantly, that my daughter got tears in her eyes when she realized how much that handwashing station meant now. It was now not just a tool for sanitation. It was the most effective way to fight the pandemic in their village.

Hand-washing stations are only part of the strategy urgently needed to build up infrastructure for sanitation. Comprehensively, global experts refer to the solution by the acronym WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene).

Here are a few ways to fund urgent sanitation needs:

  1. Clean water: Ron Bueno, executive director of Enlace, recently told me that clean water issues are now back at the top of their priority list. It is hard for people to wash their hands effectively without access to clean water. Many wells and water systems that were supposed to be installed were put on hold by the local community because people were sheltering in place and fearful to go out. Enlace has been intervening with education and support for the ground crews to get out to install and repair needed systems. Ron sees this need in their work throughout Latin America and other parts of the world, especially in Nepal. Providing funding to organizations that have strong, local leadership will help the donations to be utilized rapidly even in the midst of this time of crisis. If you have a Giving Fund (donor-advised fund), you can see a list of NCF-approved charities by clicking here.
  2. Hand washing stations: In Nicaragua, we were able to see the impact of community washing stations firsthand; and this need exists all over the world. UN stats show that two of five people worldwide do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water at home. This need is critical for families and for organizations around the world, especially those serving meals. ORPHANetwork in Nicaragua is feeding 23,000 children through their nutrition programs, and many of those children are receiving this as their best or only meal of the day.

    According to ORPHANetwork’s Dick Anderson, stations are being installed in every community where they work. These stations include clean water, soap, and clean towels for drying hands. These sanitation steps are essential, Anderson says, “to help the children’s health so their bodies can absorb the nutrition that they receive.”

    And it is not just in Nicaragua, and not just ORPHANetwork that needs them. It’s everywhere, all around the world where this kind of work is being done.
  3. Toilets/latrines: There are 2 billion people in our world who still do not have basic sanitation like toilets or latrines. Poor sanitation is prevalently linked to illness, the spread of disease, and detrimental living conditions. Many community-based organizations advocate regularly that a basic waste management system is one of the best ways to improve the health of a community.

    Ron Bueno from Enlace was recently telling me about the work they are doing in the Mandinga community in El Salvador. Their community leaders and church leaders saw the immense need and are now mobilizing together to identify, design, and manage the construction of composting latrines. This is just one of many areas around the world where toilets or latrines can save lives.
  4. Hygiene packs: We know how many people in the U.S. have scrambled to get the masks and hand sanitizer that we need. Imagine how much more difficult that is in under-resourced communities around the world. Many organizations are using gifts from donors to provide hygiene packs (soap, hand sanitizer, masks, cleaning supplies, etc.) to those most in needOrganizations all over the world are mobilizing people to make masks and distribute them throughout their communities. This is a double win, as it provides employment and gets out the much-needed items.

I hear from many donors who desperately want to do something and who realize that this pandemic is not going away quickly. You can connect with organizations that you know or seek out guidance on an organization that matches your values. And these practical sanitation ideas may give your family a way to unite together around a response to COVID-19, especially knowing that the sanitation infrastructure in a community will last far beyond this crisis.

I remember the joy on the faces of the young kids in Nicaragua who were lining up to wash their hands before their meal. There was plenty of splashing, making some of them giggle as they got sprayed by cool water on that blazing, hot day. Handwashing is such a simple act, but now we know it is the front-line defense in this global pandemic. Imagine when every child, whether in a rural village in Zambia or on the crowded streets of Nepal, has access to easily wash their hands. Twenty seconds. Don’t forget to use soap. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

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