Mother Nature Always Wins: My #WaterStory
Lisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.
Before I entered the fray of Washington, I lived in Colorado. It was an amazing life, one in which I was surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty, and humbled by Mother Nature herself. As I approach another World Water Day in my new world, absent of mountains but full of a lot that is equally meaningful, I’m joining WaterAid supporters across the country in reflecting on an everyday moment when I was reminded of how important water really is. That moment came high in the mountains of the western slope of the Continental Divide, near Vail, Colorado.
It was late spring when eight humans and four dogs set out on a backpacking trip. We would be gone a couple days and each of us was carrying around 40 pounds in our packs. It was a beautiful day, hiking in sandals and t-shirts for the first few hours as we slowly gained altitude.
That’s when we hit snow. It started out manageable; those of us in sandals changed shoes, and we kept going. Before we knew it, though, we hit powder pack so deep that some of us sunk in to our armpits. Our 40 pound packs were working against us and even with hiking poles and fancy technical gear, it was clear that we had tried to go too high too early in the season. And we quickly realized that we were going to have a problem finding water.
When you live and play in the mountains, you tend to get pretty tough. The outdoors teaches you to be prepared for anything, and there’s a confidence that comes with spending a lot of time in places with bears, avalanches and mountain lions. You learn to trust yourself, plan ahead and pack in everything you may need. Very rarely, though, did that pack include water. In those mountains, it’s often fairly easy to follow a water source for a long way, so a small purifier and one full bottle was generally all we needed. Unless, of course, the river you plan to follow is covered in snow and ice.
We had no choice but to descend. That alpine lake that we were aiming for would have to wait. We didn’t get far, though, before we heard a dog yelping in pain. We followed the sound, and arrived to find a poor Husky, one of our group, with porcupine quills all over his face and head. We did what we could to hold him still so we could pull the quills out, but he kept bleeding. If it weren’t for a bit of snow nearby, it would have been impossible to clean his wounds, and impossible for us to wash our hands like we knew we should.
Luckily downhill is faster than up, and we quickly got below the snow and back to a warm spring day. More importantly, though, we got to a river. We gratefully purified the water and filled our bottles, washed up a bit, cleaned the dog as much as he would let us, found a place to set up camp.
For us, it was an adventure. Mother Nature won, and we’d try again to get to our sweet spot at 10,000 feet later that summer. Knowing what I know now about access to safe drinking water in many places around the world though, I see parallels that cannot be ignored.
Those 40 pounds on my back were my choice, part of the adventure. But millions of women carry jerry cans full of water that weigh 40 pounds, and they do it every day. They carry them for miles, spending a quarter of their day carrying that weight, sometimes injuring themselves to provide this most basic of needs to their families.
There in the Colorado Mountains, we had friends to pull us out when the extra 40 pounds was just too much; we had snow to clean wounds, and we knew we would get back to a flowing river soon and be able to use our high-tech equipment to make that river water safe to drink on the spot. But for women who have to walk for water, using it to clean is often not top priority, and their health and safety, and that of their families, suffers.
Mine is just one water story. But I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who has chosen to carry 40 pounds on my back on a mountain excursion, who’s cut her finger or popped a blister while in the woods and had to wait for the next stream or lake to get clean. For outdoor lovers like me, it’s part of the adventure. But for 783 million people around the world, our so-called adventure is just life. Isn’t it time to take the ultimate adventure and be part of changing those lives for the better?