As experts ponder world water crisis, teenagers show creativity

As water experts meet in Mexico City to debate the world's daunting water crisis, 15-year-old Dolly Akhter is here to share her simple approach.

She and 6,000 other girls canvass the slums of Dhaka, going door to door in the Bangladeshi capital to tout good hygiene. "We talk to families and especially the teenage girls about the importance of washing their hands," explains Dolly.

She is among 100 or so children from more than 30 countries participating in the Children's Water Forum held parallel to the 4th World Water Forum. While the adults argue over ideological differences, the youngsters showcase the grass-roots action that reaches those hardest hit by the lack of safe water and basic sanitation:

• Suresh Baral, 13, leads a club in rural Nepal that helps communities pay for toilets through microfinancing;

• As leader of Nigeria's Children Parliament, 15-year-old Ibrahim Adamuy implores government officials to put aside their "mounds of paper" and talk about solutions;

• Anyeli González, 16, heads a program at her high school in Colombia that brings in local storytellers, puppeteers, and water company executives to raise environmental awareness;

• 9th-grader Happy Sisomphone directs a radio program in Laos to improve sanitation;

"Youth-led ideas may seem simple," says Jamal Shagir, the World Bank's director of water and energy. "But they represent fantastic opportunities for changing behavior and attitudes within communities. The international community must continue to push these programs along and harness young people's energy."

Coming together to find solutions

In the conference halls, the teenagers mix with the larger forum's 11,000 adult participants - industry leaders, government ministers, and nongovernmental groups - from more than 100 countries.

Adult-led seminars on water policy have been marked by ideological feuds: Business-friendly politicians and corporationspromote privatization and private sector control over water delivery, while others - who also push their agenda in street protests outside the conference - believe water is a public domain that should be managed by communities.

Just like the older experts here, the teenage activists rattle off the grim facts: More than a billion people are without adequate sewage and sanitation, according to the United Nations (UN), and more than 3 million deaths a year are blamed on water-borne disease.

The teenagers tend to avoid politics and corporate agendas and focus on cooperative action. They're here to learn about each other's projects and spread the word to more children.

"We must all fight together to change our lives and those of others," says Dolly, who was flown here from her bamboo-and-tin home by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "How can we stand by and let children die if there are solutions?"

Vanessa Tobin, chief of UNICEF's water and sanitation section, appreciates the straightforward talk. "There's no diplomacy in their dialogue. It's all very direct and very honest."

Ms. Tobin's section also runs education programs at schools in more than 70 countries, and helped kick-start Dhaka's hygiene education program. Such youth-led projects are often launched and funded by UNICEF and other groups, such as the US-based nonprofit Water Education for Teachers and the humanitarian agency Oxfam. They hope that getting kids involved at the grass-roots level now will pay off in the long term.

"When you get young people involved at an early enough age, you're putting in place a mind-set that will be there 20 years from now," says Tobin. "The experiences these children are having now won't be forgotten."

Getting results, bit by bit

Suresh's toilet-financing project in Nepal, started with advice from UNICEF, is already producing results: Two-thirds of homes in his village of Pumbi Bhumbi now have toilets, he says. "Bit by bit, we're managing to bring change," he affirms.

Ethiopian Ojulu Okelli hopes to get running water and latrines in his school, but few places pose a bigger challenge for water activists than his town of Gambella on the border with southern Sudan. It's an area mired in absolute poverty that is just now recovering from years of ethnic conflict. Okelli only gets access to clean water when his mother and sister return from their five-kilometer walk from the nearest well.

Ojulu and his friends spotted a chance to improve their underdog surroundings by getting involved in their school's environmental club. "We started cleaning up the grounds on Saturdays, picking up the litter and all that," he says, adding that he hopes that community leaders will notice the cleanups and bring tap water and latrines to the school.

"The girls need this especially," adds Okelli, who is aware that menstruation means an inconvenient and humiliating trip to a lone bush - sometimes causing girls to drop out of school when they hit puberty.

In other parts of Africa, schoolkids spin on brightly colored merry-go-rounds that pump water from nearby wells when spun. About 600 UNICEF-financed "play pumps" are now in place in South Africa.

Meanwhile, in his southeastern village in Laos, spiky-haired Happy Sisomphone directs a radio segment on sanitation, hygiene, and water-borne diseases.

"In school we're reminded that it's important to wash your hands after playing with dirt," says Happy, trained by UNICEF as a volunteer radio producer. "But we never learn why. So I interview people about the reasons we should be careful."

Claire Hajaj, a UNICEF spokeswoman, considers youths "incomparably useful" to community projects. "They take their messages to their schools, their families and friends," she says. "They create a domino effect. And if adults see kids leading these initiatives then they think, oh, I can do this, too."

Already, a good deal of the talk at the forum has centered on local, homegrown solutions. At the same time, UN studies highlighted that bringing such solutions requires tighter cooperation between governments and private companies, with less of an eye on profits.

But despite the good intentions, some of the youths run into walls. When Happy started up his radio show, some villagers rejected the idea of a young voice over the radio waves lecturing about the ills generated by bad water. "Big messages from little people don't always work," he says. "But little by little people tend to come around."

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