Pulitzer Center Update

Helium Quest: Answers to a Water Crisis

Unsafe water and poor sanitation claim 4,500 lives day. What should we do about it?

That's the question we posed in our Global Issues/Citizen Voices essay contest with helium.com, the popular writers' site. The answers have been streaming in, over 40 so far, from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to Ontario, Canada and representing richly diverse perspectives on an issue that affects every individual on this planet. With a March 31st deadline, there's plenty time to make your voice heard.

Gwen Edwards of Washington State says it begins with a shift in our global consciousness. "When will we realize we can live without gold and silver but not without clean water?" she asks. "When we shift our thinking from one of exploitation to protection of our water resources we will begin to evolve a truly global consciousness, because in reality we all do live downstream."

On Monday, March 22, World Water Day celebrates its 17th year of publicizing water issues with the theme "Clean Water for a Healthy World." Our Global Issues/Citizen Voices essay contest highlights this theme with hopes of prolonging the conversation. From entrants detailing first-hand accounts of how the lack of access to clean water has affected the lives of their families and communities to policy-based analyses of the issues and solutions, the participants consider a range of points, each adding a unique perspective to the dialogue.

T. Scott Randolph of Carbondale, Illinois, begins his essay by drawing a stark contrast between those who have access to clean water and those who don't. "With the exception of a very small percentage of lakes and streams that have been polluted," he writes, "all of the people of the United States have access to clean water. For a very large portion of the world this option doesn't exist."

By comparison, underdeveloped and less developed countries make do with relative drops of clean water. Alpha Bedoh Kamara of Freetown, Sierra Leone says most people live on a dollar a day and bottled water costs more than half a dollar. He says: "In these places access to pipe-borne water is a dream" and bottled water is not a feasible option because people "cannot afford the cost."

Placing the essays in conversation, one sees there are many questions to consider. How do we approach this inequitable distribution of water? How much responsibility do affluent countries bear? And conversely, how can countries with limited resources contribute? Perhaps most importantly, what daily actions can everyone take to help?

Leroy Johnson, a California journalist and television personality, says, "Most of the world's water supply, 75 percent according to world leaders and the United Nations, is controlled by only nine percent of the world's population. Almost all of this control is within the industrialized world."

Yet 1.1 billion people continue to live without access to reliable sources of clean water. April May Maple provides some ways individuals can help lessen this gap -- from making coffee instead of buying it by the cup to hosting charity poker tournaments and murder mystery dinner parties and donating the money. Former educator Debbie Robus of Arkansas says, "But as the power of water begins with only one drop, the power to solve this crisis starts much the same - one person at a time doing his part. The end results can, quite literally, be life-changing."

As World Water Day approaches, we must all travel down this stream and ensure the conversation continues.