Water: a most precious commodity and a basic right

Thousands die every day from the consequences of drinking from tainted sources. We can make a differ

It’s easy to take water for granted. While the current drought in parts of the UK means that some of us are facing temporary restrictions such as hosepipe bans, we all know that when we turn on the tap there will be enough safe, clean water for our daily needs, from drinking to washing and cooking.

In parts of Africa and Asia, the value of water is felt much more deeply.  “Water is everything. Once you have water you have hope for tomorrow,” explains Alice Nirere from Ntarama village, Rwanda, where WaterAid installed a new rainwater harvesting system last year. “Things have changed a lot now we have water near to us; we don’t have to toil anymore.”

At WaterAid, our vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past seven years, the New Statesman and its subscribers have been helping us step closer to this goal, donating over £25,000 to our work to improve access to these vital services in communities across Africa and Asia. That’s over 1,600 lives changed; from children who are healthy and no longer missing school to women and girls who are able to spend time with their families, get an education or earn a living.

The transformation brought by safe water and toilets is clear to see. In the villages of Ambolotarakely and Manjaka in rural Madagascar, WaterAid is working in partnership with communities to install water points, build latrines and school toilets and set up handwashing facilities. As a result, the villages have seen a huge reduction in diseases related to water and sanitation, and school attendance has shot up. As well as providing clean, safe water to drink, the run-off water from the village water points is used to grow vegetables to sell – an important source of income in an area ranked among the poorest in Madagascar.

Sadly, this example is far from the reality for millions of people in the world’s poorest communities. In fact, a staggering 783 million people are currently living without this most basic necessity. For these communities, finding water is a daily struggle, with women and children spending hours each day walking to collect water from unsafe sources such as streams, ponds and unprotected wells. Along with poor sanitation, this dirty water causes diseases that kill 4,000 children every day.

This can be prevented. Having clean water and toilets available close to home not only saves lives but transforms them too.  It helps communities take the first, essential steps out of poverty. Free from the burdens of illness and hours spent fetching water, time can be spent in more productive ways such as working, taking care of children or going to school. The impact is so huge that for every £1 spent on water and sanitation, £8 is returned in increased productivity (UNDP Human Development Report, 2006).

On a global scale, progress is being made, and earlier this year the UN reported that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the proportion of people worldwide living without safe water had been met. While this is undoubtedly a significant achievement, a renewed effort to reach the nearly 800 million still without access to clean water, and the 2.5 billion who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet, remains critical. With current slow rates of progress making the target for providing sanitation one of the most off track MDGs, world leaders need to take action now to tackle this crisis.

The numbers may sound daunting, but a world where everyone has access to safe water to drink is achievable, and could be only a generation away. Universal access to both clean water and adequate sanitation could save the lives of 2.5 million people who die every year from diseases caused by dirty water and the lack of toilets. With the help from supporters such as the New Statesman, we will keep working to make this a reality.

Barbara Frost is Chief Executive of Water Aid

Find out more about WaterAid’s work at www.wateraid.org

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".