Why we put 800 schoolbags on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral

4 min read
WaterAid laid 800 schoolbags on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in a moving tribute to the number of children who die every day from dirty water, never reaching their fifth birthday or first day at school.
Image: WaterAid/ Oliver Dixon

The awe-inspiring St Paul’s Cathedral is an iconic London landmark, having watched over the city through centuries, through good times and bad. But recently the steps outside Christopher Wren’s masterpiece staged a moving tribute to lives that were all too fleeting – the 800 children who die before their fifth birthday every single day due to dirty water and no toilets.

Passers-by paused before 800 schoolbags placed on the steps of the famous cathedral, each one marking the life of a child who will never pick up their schoolbag for their first day at school.

Working at WaterAid means that I hear these statistics every day but seeing those tiny lives remembered in front of me was heartbreaking. Our event at St Paul’s was a reminder of how the global water crisis impacts young children and their families around the world. Each of the Cathedral’s 24 steps represented the lives lost every hour – that’s 33 children under five years old who die every 60 minutes because they lack the basic human right of clean water.

It’s important for us to remember that every bag represented a child who’s life will end tragically early in this way. The bags on the front row were labelled with names of actual children who died from diarrhoeal diseases linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. Some as young as nine months old.

This winter, our Water Effect Appeal focusses on the importance of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene in health centres. When our team went to visit a health centre in Talo, Mali, they met a beautiful baby boy named Drissa. He gets regular treatment from the health centre for skin sores, but without clean water there, his family must pay for expensive saline solution. No clean water also means Dr Martin Koné cannot wash the bed he treats Drissa on once he’s finished – risking the spread of infection to others. But he has no choice. Clean water would transform this health centre, and the lives of the people who depend on it.

Baby Drissa, who is suffering with skin abscesses caused by poor hygiene at Talo Health Centre.
Image: WaterAid/Guilhem Alandry

In front of the steps of St Paul's, amongst the bags, was a vibrant sign painted by children at Wyvil Primary School just up the road from our Vauxhall office declaring “No water, no future” surrounded by their individual handprints. What was difficult for me, particularly as a parent, was hearing nine-year old students express their sadness and confusion as to why some children don’t have water and others do. I’d argue that those with the power and influence to make change ask the same question.

Schoolchildren Joana and Jessica look at the 800 schoolbags laid by WaterAid on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral
Image: WaterAid/Oliver Dixon

Many more children are missing school because they have to spend hours collecting water or get sick from drinking dirty water. What’s more, this tragic waste of life is entirely preventable. This isn’t a problem looking for a solution – we know how to protect these lives and clean water and decent toilets are human rights.

Undeniably, being able to drink clean water is vital to any child’s future. With it, children can be healthy, have enough time to attend school and get an education they deserve.

The sea of bags at St Paul’s was a moving tribute to under-fives who suffer the impact of the crisis, but unfortunately, it’s only one part of a bigger story. One in nine people around the world lack access to clean water close to home, while one in three have no decent toilet, meaning their communities are unsafe and unhygienic.

St Paul’s Cathedral once overlooked a Thames that was basically an open sewer, in the days when cholera and other waterborne diseases killed London’s children, rich and poor. But with political will and investment, the world’s first modern sewerage system was built and cholera outbreaks in London were consigned to the history books. Now no London child or their parent has to worry about getting clean water to drink.

Doesn’t every child deserve the same?

Through our Water Effect Appeal we want to raise £1.5 million – enough to reach over 20 health centres with clean water and decent toilets. That means more babies surviving, children thriving and everyone living healthier, happier lives.