Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pour Your Energy into Clean Water Worldwide

We need the energy and resources of the fluoridation crusaders and the fluoridation naysayers devoted to a much more serious water problem: the lack of clean drinking water around the world. Since we have so many people in the area who've either won or lost the recent fluoride fight and who are clearly passionate about the need for healthful drinking water, those involved in Portland's great water debate are a natural fit for this larger issue that is harming and killing people around the world. And with the Portland City Council's vote for fluoride this month, these people have inherited some time -- though some have vowed to continue the saga. 

I've been following the cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone, which, thankfully, is easing: The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that between late August and mid-September, new cholera cases per week have dropped from 2,110 to 1,418 in Sierra Leone and from 1,152 to 346 in neighboring Guinea. Water and sanitation infrastructure and education are doing good things. They are excellent at combating the cycle and spread of disease and poverty. 

But access to clean water remains a problem. And although the world is ahead of schedule in meeting a 2015 goal of substantially lowering the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, the World Health Organization reports that 783 million people in the world still do not have access to safe drinking water. That's about 11 percent of the world's population. And improved sanitation access is still a far-off target. 

In Portland we recently heard a lot about possible damages to our kids if there is a minute level of fluoride in the water, despite the widespread medical advice to fluoridate water to help kids. But the U.N. reports the hard truth that an estimated "1.8 million children die every year as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation." 

The numbers are staggering. Living Water International keeps them in my face all year long, as I have supported that quality organization in the past, but reading the various numbers at the same time I was reading coverage of the city of Portland's fluoride fight has been an experience. I kept shaking my head and wondering whether folks realize how fortunate we are to be able to have this fluoride discussion instead of dealing with a cholera outbreak that is killing our children. We have clean water that doesn't make us sick! And we have an option to put something in our water that medical experts advise. What a gift. 

I understand that we aren't Rwanda. We aren't Haiti. We aren't Sierra Leone. Can you imagine having a water scarcity? I have read estimates that the average North American uses 200-400 liters a day for drinking and for the household and garden, compared with about 10 liters a day for a person in the developing world. Our standards are different, our governments are different and our goals for public amenities get to be higher. But with some perspective, we have got to move on. This fluoride fight was picked up by The Associated Press and has been featured on National Public Radio and by ABC and CBS. It's been highlighted in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and USA Today. It has hit culinary and brewery websites. Will it hit "Portlandia"? I'm out of that loop. 

I fear that fighting about fluoride in our water must make us look a little off and a bit overprivileged. In America, our nonprofits and our valuable government safety nets can keep even the poorest people fed and our children vaccinated. And as a nation we have the ability to keep water clean and safe to drink. In other parts of the world, starvation and a lack of access to clean water are life-threatening, everyday dangers. 

We need to help when it is in our power to act. Contact the Red CrossLiving Water International or a handful of other organizations to learn what can be done about getting safe drinking water to everyone. We can do this thing. Just look at the amount of attention, passion and comedy Portland was able to bring to the issue of fluoride in water. 

By Elizabeth

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