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Water-bearer to a thirsty world

By Richard M. HarleyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 1980



New York

In a lifetime of journeying through the driest regions on earth, Fausto Bertoni has become something of an Italian Lawrence of Arabia. To his family back home in Florence he will always be the familiar, friendly "Nino."

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But to villagers in the east African desert, he is the legendary "Nunu" -- that is, Nunu al Ansari, "defender of religion," an affectionate, half-humorous title for one who served Muslim tribesmen but did not abandon hiw own Christianity.

Indeed, wherever he is on the move, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, from djibouti to Pakistan, legend is in the making. For Nino Bertoni is a master at turning up that elusive treasure so desperately sought in many parts of the world: clean water.m

This is why the United Nations Children's fund (UNICEF) scooped up his services a decade ago. It is why his services are even more in demand now, as the United Nations plans its November inauguration of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, a vast, worldwide effort to provide by 1990 a safe supply of water for the 2 billion people who do not have it now.

This wayfarer who speaks seven languages and hails originally from Genoa, the Italian town that produced Columbus, is a gentle, heavyset, totally unassuming, sad-eyed mechanical engineer who wears his thinning black hair slicked straight back. He speaks in deep throaty tones, could have been your uncle, and simply enjoys delighting people.

"Finding water for people -- it's in my blood," Nino reflected recently as we talked at UNICEF's New York headquarters, in between his journeys to the world's water trouble spots.

"It's a constant enjoyment to provide water for these unfortunate people who seem so completely helpless, but who can be easily helped with out technology," he explains, rolling his r's in a flow of Italian-accented English, gesturing gently with those giant, labor-worn hands.

"During my 18 years in the Sudan I enjoyed it virtually every day -- traveling with my staff, meeting the villagers, striking water, seeing the life of communities totally changed overnight by the water and the people so happy for having it. This happens everywhere."

Now a senior water-supply officer in UNICEF's corps of 120 experts in 40 countries, Nino lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps the cause of water. Water is not, to him, merely a common clear liquid that comes or goes with the turn of a tap. It has come to the forefront, he says, as a lifeline to the future of world development, a lifeline that is too easily unappreciated in lands where safe water is daily taken for granted.

For nearly three-quarters of mankind, just finding water demands enormous investments of time and labor. In developing countries, women invariably are given the task. Many spend six to eight hours a day in the search, carrying the water home in huge pots on their heads. In tanzania, women walk up to 15 miles daily in search of water.

And, according to Nino's UNICEF colleagues, hundreds of millions still draw from open wells or pools that are contaminated or insect-infested. In the foothills of Nepal, villagers drink, bathe, and launder their clothes in springs used by cattle. Even a religiously revered river like the Ganges in India serves a hodge-podge of bathers, launderers, and animals. Drinking water is taken from this river, which is also used to dispose of human and animal wastes. The World Health Organization links nearly 80 percent of the world's infant mortality to the poor quality of water.

"Yet ironically," Nino stresses, "for all the millions who suffer daily from unsafe water supplies, vast reserves of pure water are virtually everywhere to be harvested, usually as close as underfoot -- if only you can get to it."

Water specialist believe that although 90 percent of the world's fresh water is frozen in arctic regions, the remaining 10 percent could easily meet the needs of humankind, many times over. (Admittedly, reserves are not always easy to tap, and indiscriminate use can deplete a whole region's supply. Tuscon, Ariz., for example is in danger of overdrawing its once vast underground reservoirs.)