“Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.” Deuteronomy 23:10-13 (NIV)
While the above passage is not likely to be highlighted or often referenced, it reveals to us a nature of God that may often be overlooked.
At this point in Deuteronomy, God is laying the foundation upon which the Nation of Israel will function. God is essentially giving His people His playbook for the best way to live.
In the midst of these many rules, God makes a very clear statement on how human waste is to be handled. And yet, this topic often remains a taboo the world over – a taboo that has dramatic consequences on the health and flourishing of vulnerable children and families.
As you will soon discover, nearly 1/3 of the people in our world today do not use a basic latrine to dispose of their waste.
The resulting health and human development consequences are dire.
Over the past 20 years, there has been significant progress among NGO and community development agencies to address the world’s water crisis – providing safe and clean drinking water to each and every person. At the same time, progress to improve the hygiene and sanitation behaviors of the world’s most vulnerable people has been waning; the related Millennium Development Goal is significantly behind its 2015 target.
The comprehensive approach to address both water access and sanitation is called WASH: Water Access, Sanitation, and Hygiene. WASH programs are typically designed over multiple years and address a community’s need to have safe/clean drinking water, while also emphasizing the importance of proper disposal of human waste, and proper hygiene activities.
The water component tends to be more expensive and requires significant construction, whereas, the sanitation and hygiene components tend to require a change in how a family operates (washing their hands, bathing, disposal of human waste, building their own latrine, drying dishes off the ground, safe water storage, etc.). Needless to say, for all humans, changing our behaviors is typically the hardest thing to do!
This year, Lifewater commissioned our first white-paper on this topic (click here for the full narrative and sources). What we concluded is that local faith communities, even in the poorest regions of the world, have two incredible resources that can be used to address the WASH crisis in their very own communities: time and people.
When properly trained, equipped, monitored, and evaluated, local churches (which are really just a collection of Jesus’ disciples) are an effective agent of change in communities where WASH needs are prevalent.”
Further, using a Biblical narrative as their guide, discussions about WASH lead into further discussions and even relationships about the redemptive work of God in each of our lives and in our world.
The time has come for all of God’s people to overcome the taboo of human waste. By walking alongside local churches and retelling the redemptive story through biblical narrative we re-establish the Bride of Christ in her proper role as the hero and hope of the world. Isn’t it just like God to take our waste and turn it into something beautiful!
I. The WASH Crisis
The WASH crisis affects billions of people around the world in profound ways.
Currently approximately 750 million people live without safe water, and 2.5 billion live without improved sanitation.
It is a situation that leads to more than 1,600 children under the age of five dying every day from preventable, water-borne diseases.
Since 1990 the number of people around the world without safe water has been halved, and the proportion of people without sanitation has gone from one half to one third. Experts set a goal for universal coverage in water, sanitation, and hygiene by 2030.
Investment in WASH promises one of the highest rates of return of any development opportunity directed at alleviating poverty. A one dollar investment in WASH yields $3-$34 in economic return, but lack of WASH can cost up to 5% of a country’s GDP.
The need for WASH is prevalent in areas unengaged with the gospel, and because of the global momentum behind providing safe water and sanitation, the church has a limited window to reach the unengaged with a tangible gift of water, sanitation, and hygiene. Not only is this the single greatest step to improving health and livelihood that can be made, but, in helping to take this step, doors will be opened to share the gospel.
Significant overlap exists between those underserved with WASH and those unengaged with the gospel.
Countries with the lowest rates of water and sanitation coverage are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania as well as Central, South, and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, those in rural and more remote areas have less access to basic WASH services. Providing WASH leads us directly to those who are unreached and unengaged.
In areas that are essentially closed to Christian witness, local Christians are often able to gain access because they are filling a human need unmet by government.
In Southeast Asia, for example, minority Christian communities in several countries are finding new opportunities to witness among their neighbors through WASH, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas still suffering from high rates of water-borne disease.
II. The WASH Response
Despite the evidence that the more cost-effective investments in sanitation and hygiene are also the most effective in improving health most NGO’s engaged in water ministry focus primarily or exclusively on the provision of water alone. Focusing exclusively on water, however, misses a significant part of the solution to end water borne disease, neglects the role of the local church in the community, and underutilized the more cost-effective pieces of the solution.
WASH is more than just water because water alone, even safe water, is not enough to prevent water borne disease. In fact, providing safe water alone typically reduces diarrheal disease by no more than 25%, and often much less.
When combined with water and sanitation, however, WASH can reduce disease by 65% or more.
Hand washing with soap is the most effective means to reducing water-borne disease. It is also the most cost-effective.
The local church is uniquely positioned, in both timing and resources, to effectively address the WASH crisis and be a significant part of this movement to meet the whole needs of people around the world. Since sanitation and hygiene improvements rely on behavioral change, they require heavy investment in relationship. As these changes can be learned, shared, and utilized inexpensively, local churches in a poverty context are able to deploy their congregations to teach these very basic but life-saving health practices. WASH facilitates the relationships of trust and respect through which the gospel can be shared much more effectively. Water alone cannot do that.
III. The WASH Opportunity
WASH provides an opportunity to share the story of God’s intention for creation and the truth that each person is created in his image. The biblical narrative of brokenness, sacrifice, and redemption offers a uniquely effective witness to people living in communities broken by poverty. The metaphor of spiritual thirst and living water is especially salient to those for whom physical thirst is a constant reality.
Furthermore, the contributions of the local churches make WASH programs cost-effective, sustainable, and complete. Even in poor communities, local believers have two very important resources that can improve the health of community using preventative means: time and people. Training local church leaders in WASH allows the Christians in communities to walk with their neighbors in relationship as they improve their physical health and community well-being.
IV. Serving with WASH Strengthens the Witness of the Church
Providing WASH gives a tangible, credible witness to the truth about God’s love and human dignity. WASH programs can equip the local church with the tools to engage their neighbors, providing the opportunity to effectively and sustainably make disciples among them. In doing this, the local church begins to live out the gospel in ways it has not before – without the need for significant resourcing.
Where there is no church, WASH can open doors that are otherwise closed to evangelists or church planters, who can now serve as WASH promoters and educators.
WASH presents one of the highest values in return on investment for those seeking to serve the poor and build Christ’s kingdom. It reaches to all people (and peoples), and affects the immediate, core needs of human health and dignity.
The WASH crisis is one that the church is positioned to meet, not only to alleviate suffering, but to build the opportunities, credibility, and relationships that lead to the effective witness of the kingdom of God.
Our guest blogger is Justin Narducci, the President & CEO of Lifewater International, a non-profit, Christian water development organization dedicated to effectively and sustainably serving the world’s rural poor through integrated water, sanitation, and hygiene programs. Lifewater is a grantee of First Fruit.
WASH: A High Value Kingdom Investment