For many of us, it's hard to envision a time when water will not be readily available. From drinking to cleaning, water is a constant and often underappreciated presence in our lives. But for 884 million people clean water is a precious commodity. And if we continue to deplete our clean water sources, it will inevitably affect us all. In hopes of raising awareness of this important topic, the Pulitzer Center partnered with the popular writers' site Helium to sponsor an essay contest as part of our Global Issues/ Citizen Voices. We asked writers to determine how we can begin fixing this dilemma.
With 103 entries, the essays engaged the topic from many different angles. It was difficult to choose a single winner as there were so many interesting articles. However, the best essays engaged this oft overlooked topic in a way that even those completely unaware of the water crisis would understand its importance. Our winner, Winn Mete, best demonstrated how this issue affects everyone.
When Winn began writing "Water for Rhema Grace" she knew she had a story that fit "perfectly with the World Water Day theme," she said. Although she was not particularly passionate about water issues before commencing this essay, she was concerned about environmental issues and her subsequent research deepened this concern. "Ordinarily," she said, "it's not a topic that would have drawn me in." That is until she stumbled upon a story that melded with the topic. "I learned that a co-worker of mine, Robert Champion, an engineering student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is also president of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders," she said. When he described the organization's program in Cameroon, she knew she had a story that would excite others also not completely immersed in environmental and water issues and capture the human face of the crisis.
Choosing to put a human face on water issues, Winn uses the Rhema Grace orphanage in Tiko, Cameroon as her site of reference. From this vantage point, Winn shows that the lack of access to clean water is a global crisis that crosses demographics, borders, and cultures. As the 55 children in the orphanage show, people contend with these issues from birth to death with the time span between the two greatly affected by having access to clean water. "What these children do know is a life spent hauling fetid water used for bathing, cooking and sometimes drinking from a contaminated stream," she wrote.
Although Winn worked 10 years as a freelance news reporter and has had a syndicated column, she had not written seriously for years until discovering Helium. "Paid writing jobs became increasingly difficult to find. I basically stopped for a few years until I somehow found Helium," she said. "This wonderful site rekindled my passion for writing. My deepest hope is to once again write as my profession—hopefully, this may resurrect my career." And the reaction to her essay still amazes her. "Honestly," she said, "I feel humbled and a little overwhelmed. There are some amazingly gifted writers on this site." As such, she cherishes the site as a community of supportive and talented writers. "Writing for Helium challenges me and keeps me in good company," she said.
As for the water crisis and other pertinent environmental issues of our time, she remains optimistic. "No one can save the world but because of students and mentors of EWB-UAA, one group of children will have a better shot at surviving childhood. That's truly the hand of God at work—and it's awesome!"