Earth Day, Earth Justice

Climate change affects the poor first and deepest.


Earth Day, celebrated around the world on April 22 since 1990, and in the United States since 1970, aims to bring attention to the beauty and bounty of the natural world as well as raise awareness of humans’ impact on it. Conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, and animal lovers participate in activities to protect and preserve the environment, but there is a new group joining the effort: justice activists.

As extreme weather events like historic droughts and floods become more frequent and are often attributed (entirely or partially) to climate change, a great disparity becomes evident in nations’ abilities to protect people from suffering. Those living in the Global South are particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. The cost of adjusting to climate change in poor countries is also extremely high.

California’s severe drought, now four years running, continues to attract attention. As the nation’s most populous state as well as main food producer, California’s dearth of water affects its nearly 40 million residents as well as food prices nationwide. Governor Jerry Brown has mandated statewide water restrictions, including a 25% use reduction in all cities.

This crisis is a small window, however, to the global water crisis affecting nearly 750 million people worldwide who have no access to safe water.

Globally, nearly 1 in 9 people live without access to safe water and 2.5 billion (1 in 3) live without improved sanitation. Lack of safe water and sanitation contributes to a devastating cycle of poverty. It leads to preventable water-borne diseases like diarrhea, increases rates of child mortality, exacerbates gender inequality, inhibits education and economic growth, and contributes to violent conflict. Experts have even implicated a lack of safe water in the current conflict in Syria. Over 1,600 children under five die each day from water-borne diseases.

Unlike the residents of California, people living in the Borena region of southern Ethiopia do not have the infrastructure or reserves to provide a cushion between a harsh environment and their livelihood. The rural poor of the world live on a razor’s edge of survival, where even small changes can have devastating impact. While food bills may be rising in the US, the world’s poor communities have much more at stake. A weak rainy season means entire villages must choose between watching some of their livestock die (their only sustenance and wealth) or relocating to another area.

This was the case in Haralo, a pastoralist community in Borena that just a few years ago saw an extended dry season wipe out an entire herd of cattle. The lives of Haralo’s residents revolved around the availability of water and they were sometimes displaced for half the year with their herds in search of water.

Esnino, a mother in Haralo, says that she used to walk ten miles each way for water during the dry season, waking before dawn and returning after 2pm with all the water she could carry, usually five gallons. Her children were sick from the dirty water and infections that could not be washed. No one in Haralo attended school because they were displaced too often.

Last year, with the help of Lifewater International, Esnino and her neighbors in Haralo built a cistern that safely collects and stores rainwater during the rainy season for use during the dry season. Haralo’s residents also built latrines and handwashing stations to further reduce the incidents of water-related illnesses. Esnino reports that her children are much healthier and her family no longer experiences stomach pain by drinking the available water.

Esnino and her neighbors didn’t stop there. Access to safe water and sanitation has given them better health, but it has also freed up hours of time in each woman’s day to participate in community meetings and spend time in productive labor. By collecting small fees from those who use the water source, they were able to save enough money for a bull that will help them replenish their herd. By staying in their homes through the dry season, they used their savings to build a school, and their children are the first to attend school in their families. Through the connections they established while building the water source, they successfully petitioned the local government to send a professional teacher, and even adults are attending class for the first time.

This year another drought is forming in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya that will likely lead to widespread famine and suffering. While those with a source of safe water in Ethiopia may be able to withstand the prolonged dry season, not all their neighbors are so fortunate.

As the 45th Earth Day arrives, some will plant trees, some will install solar panels or water-saving toilets, some will take a walk in nature. Some will be thankful the Earth provided just enough to survive the year.

Lifewater International is a non-profit Christian water development organization dedicated to effectively serving vulnerable children and families by partnering with underserved communities to overcome water poverty. With experience in more than 40 countries since 1977, Lifewater serves people of all faiths, focusing on contextually appropriate water sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) development. For more information, contact Christine Zurbach ( or visit Lifewater International is based in San Luis Obispo, CA.

Choose a Village. Change a Life.