Finally, the world's drinking glass is more than half full

Maria Iglesias of San Antonio, Honduras, used to leave her home at 6 a.m. on summer days, trek to the nearest water basin, and do essential chores there until finally arriving back home around 4 p.m. But now, she spends her days at home immersed in labors of love, thanks to a life-changing development. At least a few days per week, she has running water.

"I have time now to help my children with their school work," Mrs. Iglesias said in a letter last year to WaterPartners International, an American nonprofit group that helped bring water to her village. "I can do dishes and laundry right here at my home. I don't have to walk to the 'pozo' [old water source]. This is a dream come true for me."

Across the developing world, some 700 million people have gained a household connection to drinking water since 1990 - and helped the world reach a crucial tipping point. Now for the first time, more than half the globe's people have drinking water piped into their homes, according to an August report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

Such progress, along with the spread of sanitation systems, has reduced hygiene-related illnesses, pushed more students into schoolrooms, and begun to break the cycle of urban poverty by making water much less expensive.

Yet for millions of women like Iglesias, the most immediate and surprising benefit of the new water systems is the gift of time.

"When we ask women how water projects have changed their lives, their first answer is always, 'We have more time with our kids,' " says Marla Smith-Nilson, cofounder of WaterPartners International, which has projects in Central America, Africa, and Asia. "We're focused on sanitation and health, but we're always hearing stories of how lifestyle has improved."

In rural regions of developing nations, the task of collecting water falls almost entirely to women. In Honduran mountains and the African countryside alike, women normally get the job of hiking to the nearest water source, washing whatever needs washing there, and returning, often under the weight of wet laundry, clean dishes, and full canisters. In Tanzania, to walk four to six miles each way is not uncommon, while in Ethiopia a 10-mile trek can easily consume six hours per day.

Yet where even the most rudimentary of water projects have come on line, rural women are finding themselves blessed with time they need to become not only better mothers and homemakers but also economic contributors.

For instance, Tanzanians are building new schools in just five months in watered districts, where women have time to swing hammers. Equivalent projects drag on for eight months or more in areas where women spend their days fetching water, according to the Tanzanian Embassy in the United States. What's more, children who don't need to haul water are more apt to go to school and break a cycle of poverty, says Ms. Smith-Nilson.

Experts say improved sanitation can have a similar effect.

"If girls don't have access to a private toilet, they're not going to go to school," says Tessa Wardlaw, data analyst for the WHO/UNICEF report. "The fact that half the world has no access to improved sanitation [beyond some sort of waste pit] is inexcusable."

Among the forces driving progress has been an approximate $3 billion in annual investment from among the 189 nations whose heads of state in 2000 signed onto a common goal: to cut in half by 2015 the proportion of people worldwide who lack sustainable drinking water and basic sanitation. Progress is measured against benchmark data from 1990.

Tracks diverge

The effort so far has produced mixed results. The world is on track for its drinking water target, with South Asia leading the way in terms of rapid progress, according to the WHO/UNICEF report. But sanitation tells a different story, as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania are falling behind the timetable.

Tight funds pose one obstacle. Engineering conditions also vary, which means mountain folk who can take advantage of gravity's pull might get water more easily than those in a flat desert. Politics plays a role as well, especially in the developing world's sprawling megacities, where the water sweepstakes can mean big savings for shack dwellers at the expense of hefty profits for their landlords.

For instance, in the capitals of Indonesia, Haiti, and Bangladesh, recent arrivals from the countryside now take shelter beneath tin slabs and boards and commonly depend on a landlord's illegal water-line tap, according to WaterPartners' Smith-Nilson. This means that they must pay inflated rates, anywhere from 10 to 100 percent higher than those paid by legitimate water-district customers. As a result, the poorest of the poor are spending between 25 and 75 percent of their incomes on water, which may not even be safe to drink.

"You're never going to get ahead in life if you're spending all this money for water," Smith-Nilson says. "You'll never get out of the slum."

Better health

Nevertheless, in locales where running water has arrived, health is measurably improving, according to studies conducted by the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University. Rural Honduran communities with water projects demonstrated fewer incidents of diarrhea and less growth stunting than in unimproved areas, according to the center's 2003 studies. In such areas, where intestinal diseases kill more infants than does any other cause, family life is apparently being transformed.

"We're talking about women who have six children and three die before the age of 5 versus situations when the children don't die," says Christine Moe, codirector of the center.

Rough waters ahead

Looking ahead, water- development experts see a challenging landscape. Dr. Moe says poor sanitation poses a lingering threat to clean-water sources. Projects lag behind in part because few politicians want their "pictures taken next to a latrine or sewage-treatment plant." Among other roadblocks cited by Kevin Lowther, Africare's regional director for Southern Africa: weak economies, war-ravaged infrastructure, and an AIDS crisis that's leaving scant extra money for other African priorities.

Still, water and sanitation projects are most achievable when indigenous beneficiaries step up to borrow what they need and pay it back, Smith- Nilson says. Ownership leads to long-term responsibility for upkeep, she says, as well as pride in accomplishing an important task.

"This sort of improvement shows these kind of goals are achievable," Ms. Wardlaw says. "But we still have a long way to go."

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