By Martin Fletcher, NBC News correspondent
You hear a lot these days about sustainable resources, forest degradation, sensitive ecosystems and water-borne disease. So much that it all begins to fade into incomprehensible eco-jargon. A bit like the war of the Bosnian-Herzogovians against the Serbo-Croats, which one writer described as a war of the unspellables against the unpronounceables. It all seems a long way away. What's it got to do with me?
But up close and personal, it's different. In a clinic near the Masai Mara in Kenya, the smallest unit of the Kenyan health system, my NBC News team and I crammed into the tiny room of surgical officer Richard Lemiso, and watched as a stream of worried mothers entered carrying their sick babies. Most had walked miles to visit this last beacon of hope, the man in the white coat.
Fever, diaorreah, stomach cramps, vomiting, sweating. The tiny faces either serene in sleep, or contorted in pain. The mood – resigned. The cause was almost always the same – dirty water. The diagnosis – typhoid, dysentery, dehydration, all potential killers.
This is the process, put very simply: trees have been cut for firewood, or died from disease, or been broken by large animals like elephants near the water springs. This allows other animals and cattle to approach and their feces and germs to enter the water source. That changes the balance between water for animals and water for people, dirtying the water available for villagers.
In other words, forest degradation harms the sensitive ecosystem, which reduces sustainable resources and leads to water-borne disease.
And so twelve-year-old Patrick sits in front of Nursing Officer Richard Lemiso and hears the verdict – typhoid. Again. He's suffered from one water-borne disease or another every year of his life. His father James says it wasn't always like this. Once his Masai village drank water from the same spring and nobody fell sick.
"So what's changed?" I asked.
"Too many people today, too many animals, the water gets dirty." he answered. Population growth, increased herd sizes, and all competing for declining amounts of water, because more is used for agriculture, which is expanding.
|NBC News/ Jeff Riggins|
|Masai warrior pictured shortly after Masai baby naming ceremony.|
It's hard to imagine that of Africa's 800 million people, almost one in three, 250 million, have no access to clean water. Not even a tap. And no Perrier for the Masai, or even San Pelegrino. Even in the capital Nairobi, people fall sick from the water.
And as for the hospitals, take care. On one day we spent in the capital, the national newspaper carried a story headed: "Skeleton found in Hospital Tank." In Nandi South District, the paper reported, hospital patients and staff had been drinking from a water tank with a decomposing body inside it. Patients found human hair in their cups. They all gathered to watch as the skeleton was pulled out.
Our report for NBC will focus on a new Dutch invention, Lifestraw, which is a cigar-like filter you put into any dirty water and suck. The water passes through a series of filters and comes out clean into the mouth, say the manufacturers.
|NBC News/ Martin Fletcher|
|Masai herder boys drink with LifeStraw.|
If it works, it could be revolutionary. It costs less than $3.75, although a newer model may reach $5. People with no access to tap water and who routinely live on water they find on the land, such as cattle herders like the Masai boys near the Masai Mara, could now take along their portable water cleansers.
The trouble is, drinking clean water is only part of the solution to water-borne disease. Rural people have to be taught to wash their hands before they eat. That helps. But if the water they wash with is dirty, tit doesn't do much good. And if the dirty water spills and mixes with a mud floor, and children lie or play in it, it doesn't matter how much water they drink through a Lifestraw, they still face the risk of water-borne diseases.
|NBC News/ Jeff Riggins|
|African Sunset - Acacia tree surrounded by wildebeest on Masai Mara.|
Frankly, it's heart-breaking to measure the difference between the lives of children in Europe and America and those in areas without clean water, especially in Africa.
And I'll be a lot more sympathetic to eco-jargon.