Tag Archives: sanitation

(Desperately Seeking) Health Without Safe Water: A Reflection by Leah Caudell-Feagan

5 Aug

Editor’s Note:  The following (with very slight modifications) was written by Leah Caudell-Feagan currrently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I came across this Blog the morning after the UN adopted the outcome document which recommends a new and ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals to Heads of State who will gather at the UN in September.   One of those goals (#6) is expressly devoted to achieving universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030.  Diplomats could hardly make a better case for such a commitment than Leah has here.

Health Without Safe Water

It simply can’t exist.

This is a fact that we all know. A woman from Gambia walked in the Paris marathon this year to show the lengths to which some people in the world have to go to obtain potable water. Matt Damon and other celebrities star in videos gone viral that try to shock us into understanding how crucial water is, and how big of a problem it is for so many.

A lack of water is a global issue, affecting too many people worldwide, though celebrities, activists, and normal citizens alike understand this problem mostly in a theoretical sense. I also had some awareness of this problem, even to the extent that I felt guilty when I took showers that were luxuriously long, or when I left the tap running while brushing my teeth. However, it was not until my Peace Corps service that I truly began to understand how critical water is to health.

After becoming intimately acquainted with life sans potable water, I can tell you from personal experience that a lack of water makes life harder in many ways, but none more taxing than losing control over your health. During my Peace Corps service I have constantly gone back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because it has become relevant for me in ways I never imagined it would.


For the first time in my life, I became stuck in the first tier, not being able to climb past physiological needs to general safety. Maslow said it well–without water, there is no security of body or health. Following that truth, without security of body and health it becomes increasingly difficult to find footholds in the higher, more complicated needs and aspirations. Such a lack negatively impacts your esteem, and halts your ability to find time and energy for creativity and those things that truly make life feel exciting and stimulating. In simpler terms, if you are stuck in your house having diarrhea every 30 minutes, investing time in your friendships, feeling great about yourself, and thinking of ways to develop yourself and rise out of conditions of poverty all become pretty daunting if not completely impossible.

I realize that I am absolutely oversimplifying a complicated thought experiment and issue. I am speaking from what I have seen and my personal experiences of living without water and struggling with my health. My immune system and I were never the best of friends, and I’m not saying that I was the healthiest person before making a home in OjedaHowever, after multiple amoebas, Chinkungunya, more UTIs that I can count, multiple bacterial infections, pink eye, and a skin rash that despite being seen by doctors 4 different times still has no name, I definitely think that I can prove correlation between the lack of safe water and the health decline I experienced during my service. And those health issues don’t include the digestive irregularity that becomes a baseline for PCVs, the food poisoning that attacks frequently, and viruses that take over the community every few months. As my flight back to the states approaches, people keep asking me what I am most excited for. Before they can even finish asking the question I always blurt out “TO BE HEALTHY!”. What I’ve realized recently is that what I really am most excited for is water. Beautiful, running water that has no creatures swimming in it. Filtered water that needs only to be appreciated.

Living without water means the house is not clean. It means that the plates you eat off of and the food that is prepared are not as clean as they should be. It means that no matter how hard you try, you physically are not clean, because even if you go to the river twice a day to bathe, you are bathing with animals and the hoards of community members who are there beside you.  A lack of water means that even the most basic steps to staying healthy become impossible. Washing your hands is one of the surest ways to protect yourself against illness. I know this better than anyone here–I teach it. However, when I have one bucket of water to last me today and possibly tomorrow too, washing hands becomes another thing in the long list of activities to prioritize.

Health is a human right, and water is one as well. These shouldn’t be things that anyone in this world has to prioritize around or worry so much about.

My mom is constantly telling me about the guilt that she feels for having water when I, and all of my community members in the Dominican Republic, do not.. I definitely do not want anyone reading this to feel guilty. But she also tells me how grateful she is for every glass of water she fills up out of the tap to drink, and how much she appreciates the water that pours out of the shower heads and taps all over our house. That- the appreciation and gratitude- is what I want you to feel. I appreciate all of the people all over the world who are working towards ensuring that all human beings have access to water and all of those who donate their time, money and energy to this cause. And when I am eventually back in the land of free flowing, filtered water, I am positive that I will never again fail to feel grateful.