The Unsung Heroes of Water Sustainability

rio-logoAs we write these words the Olympics are in full swing in Rio de Janeiro. It is a time when we celebrate athletes from around the globe who have put countless hours behind the scenes into rigorous training in order to get their moments of glory on the field, in the pool or on the court. They are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of sport.

So we have decided to dedicate this summer blog to some other unsung heroes – people or organizations that work creatively, tirelessly and for the most part anonymously to ensure that we and generations to come will have clean water to drink.

But first let’s take a moment to acknowledge water itself – the H2O without which there would be no life on our planetwater-unsung-hero and which most of us take for granted every day. Yes, there’s lots of it (332.5 million cubic miles, to be exact) but 97% of it is undrinkable salt water. And of the other 3%, only 0.1% is easily accessible (from lakes, rivers, etc.) The rest is trapped in glaciers or deep underground.[3]

The first continent we will visit to celebrate an unsung water hero is Africa. Did you know that collectively, South African women and children walk a daily distance equivalent to 16 trips to the moon and back to get water?[3] And if we compare the daily consumption of water, in gallons, between the USA, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, this is what it looks like:


kenyaThis year on World Water Day, USAid chose Annabell Waititu, a Kenyan gender and water specialist, as one its unsung water heroes, and we fully concur. “Water is really a women’s issue,” says Waititu, pictured here meeting with employees of Kenya’s Embu Water and Sanitation Company (EWASCO)., As part of USAID’s Sustainable Water and Sanitation in Africa (SUWASA) program, Waititu has been instrumental in integrating women at all levels into the water utility’s workforce. “Since women have a different understanding than men about how households access water, female perspectives add value in terms of their approaches to dealing with water service provision,” says Waititu. “Bringing women into leadership positions at water utilities allows them to inform policymaking in terms of how utilities respond to the needs of their customers, allowing utilities to offer more effective and efficient service.”[1]

kathmanduThe Indian subcontinent is another part of the world that faces challenging water sustainability problems. There are extensive arid regions where water scarcity is a daily issue — and poor water stewardship is threatening water security even in well-watered areas. Here too USAid honored an unsung water hero as part of World Water Day 2016: Dr. Rijan Kayastha, one of Nepal’s top glaciologists.

The Himalaya and its subsidiary ranges serve as “water towers” for much of Asia, storing vast reservoirs of fresh water in the form of seasonal snow and glacial ice. Yet little is known about how much of this water feeds the great Asian rivers originating in this remote area. Dr. Kayastha heads up the USAID-funded Contribution to High Asia Runoff from Ice and Snow (CHARIS) project that has fostered collaboration among research institutions from eight countries across the region. He also founded the Master’s in glaciology program at Kathmandu University, which is equipping students from Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan with the interdisciplinary skills needed to help advance sustainable regional water resource management. As shown in the picture, each summer Kayastha accompanies his students on field research programs in the mountains, allowing them to gain hands-on experience with water-measurement equipment and field data collection. Their work is contributing to a growing body of region-wide hydrological information that helps water managers plan for downstream irrigation, hydropower generation, and other water uses.

And now to North America.

chesapeakeThe Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses six states and 64,000 square miles from Virginia to New York. Protecting and restoring the Bay is both very important, and very challenging. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has recently been acknowledged[2] as an unsung water hero for its untiring efforts to save the Bay – and keep it saved.

“Everything that happens in these [watershed] states affects the Chesapeake Bay, but the hard part has been getting them to all work together and be on the same page,” says Kenny Fletcher, a spokesperson for the Foundation. “We’ve had agreements in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s between the states, but they have been voluntary so they haven’t been enforced.”

The Foundation has been instrumental in forging the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint – a legally binding agreement that holds the six states within the Bay’s watershed accountable to target pollution and meet EPA limits by 2025.

Of course there are countless unsung water heroes around the globe. If you have a story that you’d like to share with us and our readers, please let us know. And enjoy the rest of the summer!


[1] Celebrating Water Heroes, USAid Water Team, March 17, 2016
[2] Water’s Unsung Heroes: Give Back Guide, May 29, 2016
[3] Melissa Breyer, 36 eye-opening facts about water, March 21, 2016


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