NewsHow clean water and faith go hand in hand

How clean water and faith go hand in hand

(RNS) — Earth Day is no longer the one day a year we dedicate to thinking about the health of our planet. The urgency of climate change has made concern about the environment a daily consideration. But when thinking of the health of the Earth, we must remember that all our health depends on the health of our water.

Water is also of deep concern to our world’s faiths, as it is the only symbol every world religion shares. Water cleanses, sanctifies and blesses rituals around the world. But it is more than a symbol: clean water is a conduit of care and love.

So many problems in health care can be traced to unsafe water, a leading preventable cause of early childhood malnutrition, cognitive stunting and death. For women and girls in the most marginalized parts of the world, it’s a lifelong issue. A girl will often drop out of school when she hits puberty because she has no sanitation facilities to meet her needs. In many cultures it is the job of women to wake each day before dawn to collect water, knowing that it may bring illness to their families.

Most crucially, lack of access to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene — WASH — is a fundamental problem in tens of thousands of health clinics and hospitals all around the world.

In the most remote places, pregnant women often come in from the countryside as they near labor to give birth at health care centers that have no clean water and often must bring their own. They give birth on unsanitary tables and can’t effectively wash their hands and bodies before cradling and nursing their newborns. Predictably, infections are a leading cause of preventable death for mothers and newborns across low-resourced countries.

These conditions also impact nurses, midwives and cleaners, making it all the more difficult for them to treat women with kindness and dignity when they themselves are working in such undignified and dangerous circumstances. 

Faith workers have a particular role to play in making WASH more available to more people. The Catholic Church, the largest unified provider of essential health care in the world, offers a compelling model.

Pregnant women wait for labor to begin at a healthcare center in Ethiopia. Many facilities like this in underdeveloped countries lack clean water. (Photo by Haik Kocharian for Village Health Partnership)

Pregnant women wait for labor to begin at a health care center in Ethiopia. Many facilities like this in underdeveloped countries lack clean water. (Photo by Haik Kocharian for Village Health Partnership)

In Nigeria, Daughters of Charity, a nearly 400-year-old order of Catholic sisters, distribute “clean birth kits” to women in their third trimester of pregnancy, along with basic pregnancy care. The kits contain items to help with a hygienic birth — plastic sheeting, gloves, gauze, alcohol swabs, soap, a razor blade, as well as a baby blanket and cap to keep the newborn warm.

In a country with the second highest maternal and newborn death rates in the world, and where preventable infection is the second leading cause of death,

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