Reversing the Flow Connecting the U.S. to Global Water Causes

Earth Day Network’s lesser-known side project is called the Global Water Network. Unlike the much more visible Earth Day—celebrating its April 22 40th anniversary this year with projects that include “A Billion Acts of Green,” 40 school green building upgrades and a documentary with PBS—the Global Water Network (GWN) is only in its second year. It’s a means for connecting donors with water projects across the globe—with Earth Day Network (EDN) acting as a conduit, especially in encouraging U.S. schoolchildren to take up collections for children abroad who lack clean drinking water access and proper sanitation.

“In the U.S.,” says Beth Larson, EDN’s international education coordinator, “students don’t feel empowered. But just a small amount of money can go a long way in places like Burkina Faso.”

Burkina Faso, West Africa, is the third- poorest country in the world—just over half of residents have access to clean drinking water, and only 12% have proper sanitation. The country is also ranked last in maternal health and it has, according to GWN’s website, the highest illiteracy rate on the planet. Providing water access to a village school including latrines and small-scale irrigation, at a cost of just $1,000, is one of several “Adopt-a-Water Project” possibilities detailed on the site. There is also an orphanage bathroom renovation in the Ukraine serving 151 children ($4,500), and drinking water and sanitation for a school serving more than 700 students in Peru ($9,150).

Pascua Falls in Patagonia © International Rivers

Those working on the ground in developing countries point to myriad ramifications that happen when fresh water is not easily accessible. Ina and Esu Anahata, cofounders of the BARKA Foundation in Burkina Faso, say women and girls are the first ones affected. “Women in Africa walk an average of six km [nearly four miles] carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads every day for their family’s water needs,” the couple wrote to E via an e-mail correspondence. “This prevents women from engaging in more productive work” and because of water duties, “girls are prevented from attending school.”Larson also highlights gender disparities as a major water concern, adding that “parents won’t let girls go to school if there are not separate bathroom facilities.”

More Ways to Give and Get Involved

Hair and skincare company Aveda has had a partnership with Global Greengrants Fund for more than a decade, in order to direct money to environmental causes and has seen a “dramatic spike in fundraising with the issue of clean water,” says Katie Galloway, Aveda’s Earth Fund manager. The company itself looks for ways to lower its water footprint, she says, and has expanded Earth Day to “Earth Month,” since 1999. Through sales of a limited edition “Light the Way” candle, as well as via Walks for Water, Aveda raised some $3 million for environmental causes last year, just over $1.1 million of which went to Greengrants. And the company specifically directs grants to areas of the world where they source ingredients. “The best example is Madagascar,” says Galloway. “A lot of our essential oils and aromas are sourced there, such as clove and cinnamon…Greengrants did a grant in the Southeast part of Madagascar where they cleared out a well and installed a solar tank and water tank. As a result, 2,000 people in Madagascar now have access to clean water.”

And while the Anahatas say lack of funding is the biggest impediment to fresh-water access in the developing world, even letter-writing campaigns can have a major impact. Such a campaign is underway in Patagonia, Chile, an area known for its breathtaking natural beauty and crystal-clear rivers and lakes.

An Aveda-sponsored water tank in Madagascar. © Avia Imhof

A deal struck during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship resulted in all of Chile’s water rights being privatized. On January 12, 2010, the Chilean government submitted a constitutional reform to Congress which would declare water a national resource for public use. The matter is considered urgent—90% of water rights for hydroelectric generation are held by just three companies, according to Chile’s anti-trust tribunal. These companies want to build at least five dams on Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua Rivers in order to deliver electricity to copper mines in Santiago 1,500 miles away. “These are truly wild rivers,” says Pat Rasmussen of the World Temperate Rainforest Network. “Few places in the world have such clean water.”

The consortium of companies called HidroAysen would need over 5,000 200-foot towers to carry the electricity, a process which could end in the destruction of 35,000 acres of forest as well as acres of flooding from the dams. What’s more, says Rasmussen, the region has its own vision for a “sustainable future for farmers and people living there,” including expanded ecotourism and renewable energy.

A letter-writing campaign by Global Response calls for students to write letters expressing their support for preserving Patagonia’s wilderness and waterways. The group expects thousands of letters which will be hand-delivered following Earth Day to Sr. Eliodoro Matte, chief executive of The Matte Group, the main Chilean company involved in the HidroAysen project. Past successful campaigns from Global Response have resulted in mangrove and shark habitat protection in the Bahamas and prevention of a gold mine expansion in Australia to protect wetlands and migratory birds.