Mission Week Expert Describes Progress and Problems on Global Water Issues

Great progress has been since 1990 in making clean water available to hundreds of millions of people, but there remains great need to extend that progress to hundreds of millions more, a leading figure in such efforts said Thursday at Marquette Law School.

As part of Mission Week at Marquette University, Vanessa Tobin spoke with Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program. Tobin is senior technical advisor for water supply, sanitation, and water resources for Catholic Relief Services. She worked for 24 years for UNICEF on dealing with these needs and others around the world before joining Catholic Relief Services in December, 2011.

Tobin said that for people in nations such as the United States or her native England, “we take our hygiene and sanitation for granted. . . . These are luxuries in many countries.” For about 750 million people, primarily low-income residents of  sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, unpolluted water is not available and poor sanitary conditions affect the health of millions of people, particularly children five and under.

Since 1990, about two billion have been given access to clean water, Tobin said, but for a large portion of them, that means going considerably distances — often more than half a mile –on foot each day to get small amounts of water. Relatively few have access to water within their homes.

Some of the solutions to water-related health problems are not complicated, Tobin said. Diarrheal diseases are a major problem in many parts of the world, causing death and major health problems frequently and stunting physical and intellectual growth in children. Good hand-washing practices can reduce such diseases by 40%, Tobin said, making that “one of the most important innovations” in preventative health. But hand washing requires good access to healthy water, as well as a changes in personal practices.

Other solutions take concerted action by local governments, nations around the world, non-governmental organizations such as a Catholic Relief Services, philanthropists, and businesses, she said.

This year’s Mission Week at Marquette is being conducted in partnership with Catholic Relief Services, including presentations on the organization’s work and suggestions of how people at Marquette and in places such as Milwaukee can support such efforts.

Tobin said the organization is working on projects to improve access to clean water in 40 countries that have particularly strong needs. She talked about efforts in Haiti, several African nations, and parts of India as examples.

Is there a role for Milwaukee to play in responding? Tobin said she had been skeptical about what the Water Council, a water industry organization based in Milwaukee, could do before she visited its offices. But she said Dean Amhaus, CEO of the council, told her about innovations that were being worked on here which could help around the globe. Tobin said there was generally little innovation being offered in improving efforts related to water. She came away from the conversation hopeful. “We are very enthusiastic to work with the council,” she said.

Other Milwaukee-based businesses might be able to help in other ways, Tobin said, and individuals can help by building their awareness and commitment and by making donations to organizations such as hers.

Tobin said she decided when she was 15 that she wanted to work overseas on ways to help people, and she has done that. After 30 years of such work, she said, she is not “as wide-eyed” as she was as a teen. But, she said, “I would never call me cynical.” She has seen a lot of positive results – just as she sees a lot more that needs to be done.

Video of Tobin’s conversation with Gousha may be viewed by clicking here.  


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