Climate change is here. Now. It is not a matter of an occasional snowstorm, hurricane, tornado, or short heat wave. In other parts of the globe, it is now part of the daily struggle for existence.

Friendly Water for the World, a Quaker-founded organization, partners with communities, schools, and families in parts of subSaharan Africa and India. We have seen what is happening at close hand. In central Tanzania, among the Maasai, women, who are used to walking for water every day, leaving at 3 a.m. and returning at noon, now walk as much as 13 hours each night, leaving at 11 p.m., with their daughters taken out of school for this purpose. Each and every night. In western Kenya, a Friends school reports that half of the children are leaving classes to walk for water. In some places, while rainfall hasn’t diminished, it has been concentrated into shorter, more intense periods leading to serious flooding. At the same time, dry periods are becoming longer and longer, leading to crop failures. In Chennai, in southern India, the entire city of more than seven million ran out of water for several months. People couldn’t take showers for weeks; clothes couldn’t be washed; factories shut down; restaurants closed because they couldn’t supply water to their patrons. People left for the countryside, where there was also little water to be found.

Why We Don’t Do Wells

The typical way international development organizations and funders have addressed situations like this in the past is to dig more wells and boreholes. After all, there is water underground (sometimes), and if you dig deep enough…

That’s the way it has always been done. But in many if not most circumstances, as Friendly Water for the World has seen firsthand, it is no longer sustainable.

In many places, aquifers are quickly being drained. Wells are being dug deeper and deeper, in some cases so deep that they are bringing up dangerous levels of arsenic and fluoride, poisoning entire communities, especially children. On the outskirts of cities, water recharge areas are being paved completely over, and rampant deforestation has resulted in quick water runoff, rather than slow percolation through the ground. In shallower boreholes, more of the water is contaminated with animal (and human) feces, increasing the spread of waterborne illnesses like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. And as more and more people sink wells, they end up unintentionally stealing water from each other, and pitting the needs for water for agriculture and water for personal use in competition with each other.

Wells are expensive to drill. In many places, drilling is controlled by virtual monopolies, placing the cost of drilling beyond the reach of poor communities and families. When they are drilled, in our experience, they are often abandoned after just 2-3 years. Sometimes it is for lack of water. Sometimes because anaerobic iron bacteria are breaking down the underground shafts and pumps. Just as often, however, communities are not given even the least training to perform simple repairs on boreholes or pumps, rendering them inoperable. We have literally scores of photos of abandoned wells put in by well-meaning churches, missions, Rotary Clubs, and others with no money for repairs, and no plan for monitoring or sustainability.

Read the full article about Friendly Water for the World by David Albert at Global Washington.