Walking for Water in New York City

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WaterAid U.S. CEO Sarina Prabasi reflects on walking for water through the streets of New York City in an effort to raise awareness and demand action for the global water crisis.

Like most New Yorkers, I have a busy morning routine. I wake up, use the toilet, shower, get my daughters ready for school, sip my coffee and fill up my water bottle before taking the subway into work. Many of us start our days like this, without really thinking of the luxury of being able to turn on the faucet, to flush the toilet without a second thought.

One morning in the middle of July, instead of heading to the office, I took the subway to Central Park and filled a bucket with water from Bethesda Fountain, just as the park was springing to life with early morning joggers and dog walkers.

From there, I led a group of WaterAid staff and supporters on a march for two miles, each of us carrying a bright yellow bucket down Lexington Avenue before ending our walk outside the United Nations.

WaterAid staff walk with buckets of water outside the UNWaterAid/ Drew Gurian

It was a far cry from the grueling and often dangerous walk for water made by millions of women in the developing world each day, but it was a chance to reflect on what so many of us take for granted. It also allowed me to imagine a time when New Yorkers didn’t have access to clean water.

Our walk for water started at the Bethesda fountain because it commemorates a crucial moment in the history of New York when the Croton Aqueduct brought clean water to the city in 1842. This was a decade after a cholera epidemic that killed 3,500 people – a proportion of the city’s population equivalent to 100,000 New Yorkers today.

The opening of the aqueduct was swiftly followed by the construction of a sewer system, which protected city dwellers from waterborne disease. It is hard to imagine what New York might have become without those crucial services and a growing knowledge of the importance of hygiene. 

We walked in solidarity with the 844 million people worldwide who live more than 30 minutes round trip from a source of clean water. We walked for the thousands of children who die from drinking dirty water every year. We walked in order to remind decision makers at the United Nations that this situation is unacceptable. We walked to demand action to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: universal access to water and sanitation.

The second week in July, ministers and civil society members gathered in New York to discuss progress on Sustainable Development Goal 6. WaterAid recently released a report showing that at current rates of progress, it will be centuries before some countries are able to provide universal access to water and sanitation.

The time to redouble our efforts is now. That’s why I was extremely disappointed when the U.S. government was one of two countries to vote against a UN declaration to recommit to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We most hold our leadership accountable stand with those who have been left behind, unable to access the services so many of us take for granted.

Clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene allow communities to prosper because they reduce sickness and free up time to work and raise a family. Without these basic human rights, these building blocks of human development, it is impossible for communities to prosper.

For me, this walk was a powerful reminder that every day, women in the developing world waste hours of their lives walking for water.

Even if only symbolic, acknowledging the reality of daily life for so many women in the developing world is a step in the right direction.