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The Unintended Consequences of Giving Water

Insights + Opinion

In war, natural disaster and poverty, water is the first relief to arrive alongside the security of life and limb. It is the gift that aids the weary traveler, sits at the table before a meal arrives. The lack of it kills before the lack of food does. It is not a commodity, as in the Bolivian Water Wars that fought the privatization of public wells, but rather it is a human right. So when the United Nations sanctions against Iraq in the 1990's stressed schools and hospitals to the point of disrepair and abandonment of their wells, human rights activists stepped in.

In 1999 a group of veterans, working through Veterans for Peace, founded the Iraq Water Project, with a mission to improve the health prospects of some part of the Iraqi population dependent upon water treatment facilities in desperate need of repair. Once a site is selected, usually a school or clinic, a 3-stage filtration unit, with reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light treatment, is set up to clean incoming water from a river, well or municipal source.

New water filter installed in alAskari shrine in Samarra.

To date, 160 units are in place mostly in schools and clinics across Iraq. We've installed one filter unit in an orphanage, a refugee camp, six prisons, including Abu Ghraib, which is now closed, and the alAskari shrine in Samarra, the one that alQaida bombed back in 2006.

Our partner, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, installed five units in Najaf schools, while Life for Relief and Development, an American Islamic NGO, installed two units in schools in the Diyala Province (east-central Iraq). For reasons of security we cannot name the group we work with in Nassiriya that installed four water treatment units in the new Nassiriya Heart Center and another four in local schools. These organizations are doing the lion's share of the work, taking responsibility for the installation, security and maintenance of the water filter units, providing citizens with a basic human right—access to clean water.

What's come of this investment are positive unintended consequences that have exceed our expectations, both social justice and conservation. By contributing to the relief of someone's suffering, a wonderful sense of humility and joy emerges, especially among the U.S. veterans participating in the project, which I can attest to personally. More importantly, lives are saved, dysentery among small children and water-borne illnesses have been reduced where the water filters are installed. Unexpectedly, the water filters serve not only the schools and clinics, but they become a community hub—a meeting place. The goodwill that emerges from Iraqi organizations managing their own recovery and the relationship that forms between Iraqis and American citizens is invaluable. There is reconciliation and atonement, which are hard to find.

A school in the Therthar village near Falluja.

Interestingly, giving water contributes to solving another problem: plastic pollution. Often when relief aid is sent after a natural disaster or during civil unrest, it comes packaged in stuff that becomes garbage. Water bottles by the millions are strewn across villages in Iraq, reflective of the years of poor waste management, garbage from war and relief aid. American bases established in Iraq employed "burn pits" to incinerate garbage. The same burn and bury strategy exists in villages across the country, sending acrid smoke into communities. Iraq's waste problem contributed to public outbreaks in cholera and dysentery, and roadside bombs found ample trash piles to be concealed within.

Iraqi children scavenging for recyclables in a dump near Najaf.Haidar Hamdan / AFP

One water filter can sustain daily drinking water for 1,000 residents for up to 3 months before filters need to be changed. The same volume would exceed half a million 1 liter plastic water bottles. By providing the "means to fish, rather than the fish itself," access to water becomes seemingly endless. But in today's political climate in Iraq, there are continued challenges to keep these water filter units operational.

Therefore, what continues today is maintenance and new installations of water filter units where they are needed. We recognize that past sanctions, war and poverty, exacerbate suffering, but sharing this gift is contributing to Iraq's recovery in sometimes unpredictable ways. It all begins with water.

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The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

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"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.