By Hilary Burrage
One of the most memorable stories I ever heard was from a civil engineer who was asked about the achievement of which he was most proud. He immediately said it was being invited to first turn on the tap which he had installed to deliver clean running water to an African village where there had previously been no supply.
And now Water Aid has decided to share in real time their account of an even more ambitious project in Malawi, set against demanding deadlines…

Time is short
There are two pressing deadlines for WaterAid‘s Big Dig, a programme which aims to supply fresh running water and latrines in Malawi – a country where 1 in 5 people have no supply of clean water, and nearly 1 in 2 must cope with the indignity of nowhere safe to go to the toilet.

The first deadline is the seasons. The rains will come in November. That rain will wash dirt into water sources and will spread diseases, making it impossible to dig and build.

But even more immediate is a political deadline. The UK Government has undertaken to match pound-for-pound all donations, but only until 18 September.

Watch progress in real-time
A finely judged YouTube film just released shows in human terms why the Big Dig aims to install clean running water and hygienic sanitation in villages where these essentials are missing. Likewise, the Big Dig blog is being constantly updated with real stories about real people.

And alongside the action, literally on the ground, there’s realtime information on how the Big Dig financial appeal is going. You can see it here.

Lessons from history
It feels strange to think of having no water when (June 2012), hosepipe bans or not, the UK seems awash with the stuff; but perhaps we take our long established albeit creaking water supply far too much for granted.

With the 1866 Sanitary Act Victorian Britain led the way in establishing a modern system of sanitation and water supplies. We must remember however that at least in part this legislation arose from the Great Stink of 1858, when sewer-related odours arising from the River Thames were so unpleasant that Parliament decreed something must be done right now.

But still, more than 150 years later, there are people whose daily lives are blighted by a lack of proper latrines and decent water supplies. And the UK Government – in a move which seems somehow to reflect the response of Parliament of 1858 – has said that, for a very short while, it will match whatever British citizens will give to help make the Big Dig also a Big Success.

Water is a resource
Water is not ‘just’ a moral issue, though the case for everyone to have decent water is without doubt morally compelling.

Without clean water people get ill and even sometimes die; they are undernourished, their lives are marred in many ways. These facts alone are enough to justify every effort to supply the water. Poor health and poverty are personally miserable, just they are also a drain on meagre resources.

But water is also and increasingly an international currency, it’s an essential for economic prosperity just as it is, even more pressingly, for overall sustainability. Seen in this way, the enlightened self-interest of supporting water-short nations to become more water resilient becomes clear.

The future?
It is in no-one’s interests to deny their fellow human beings fundamental resources such as water. Avoidable gaps in wealth – water ultimately at least as much I suspect as money – are a route to international instability

And perhaps decent water supplies, with hours every day now not required to collect whatever quality of it can be found, will release some people, for instance in Malawi, to use their energies in different and more economically productive ways. We shall have to wait and see.

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