On the Waterfront

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Women pray in the Ganges River in India. Water is central to many faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Women pray in the Ganges River in India. Water is central to many faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Pranab Chandra

Faith, Water and Development

Millions of Hindus gather to bathe in the Ganges River in India every
12 years. They chant scriptures, sing religious songs, and cleanse themselves in the rivers during “Ardh Kumbh Mela,” the Half Pitcher Festival. Sacred Hindu writings say that this ritual bathing cleanses believers, speeding their way to Nirvana.

Almost 4,000 miles away in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, several million Muslims will sip water from the Zamzam Well as part of the annual Hajj. This well is said to have saved the Prophet Ismail from dying of thirst and to have enabled the holy city of Mecca to thrive in ancient times.

Water is central to most faiths. Christians perform baptisms in water, Judaism prescribes ritual washings, Buddhists present monks with water during funerals, and Zoroastrianism forbids water pollution. Many faiths have deemed certain water sources as sacred – truly the oldest form of environmental protection.

Increasingly, aid organizations are finding that the inverse is also true. Faith-based groups can be essential partners in the quest to bring water to people and boost public health. For more than 50 years, from the smallest villages to vast regions, USAID has been engaging monks, priests, imams, and other religious leaders across the world around goals that are integral to all faiths: Safe access to water, improved livelihoods, and thriving families.

Partners for Generations

Today, over 80 percent of people worldwide identify as members of a religious or spiritual community. Religious values and practices are deeply entwined in the fabric of daily lives, and the leaders
 of churches, mosques, temples, and other religious communities play an important role in shaping attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.

According to USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Global Health Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, “Faith communities are essential because of their extensive networks, their credibility and leadership within communities, and their capacity to mobilize significant numbers of volunteers. Put simply, religion has a staying power that we need to get the job done.”

The USAID Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (CFBCI) was established by Presidential Executive Order 
in December 2002 to more effectively facilitate partnerships with faith communities. In 
just over a decade, CFBCI, in conjunction with other offices at USAID, has been successful in engaging these groups to work together toward common goals.

These partnerships have been especially indispensable in the wake of conflicts and natural disasters. After the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen in 2010, USAID’s Responsive Governance Project engaged religious leaders in efforts to promote health and stability. And in the wake of debilitating floods in Pakistan in 2010, USAID/Pakistan’s Agriculture Recovery Project was able to reach victims in remote areas by holding meetings in mosques where neighbors gathered and identified the most in need.

During times of political flux, religious institutions can be
 the most stable development partners on the ground. When
 a coup destabilized Madagascar
in 2009, the U.S. Government stopped providing direct foreign assistance to the Government of Madagascar and instead partnered with churches to promote water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) by educating parishioners, associations of church-going women, scouts, and Sunday school teachers. Mr. Haja, a pastor-in-training there, noted that this partnership proved uniquely effective. “Prior to this, people didn’t have the habit of washing their hands after going to the toilet. Now everyone washes their hands,” he said.

Reaching the Masses

Because faith groups have spent centuries gaining the trust and love of the people they reach, they are powerful agents of behavior change. In Egypt, USAID’s Water and Wastewater Sector Support program engaged local priests and sheikhs to spread messages about water conservation that
were rooted in theology. At one meeting held in the Nile-side city of Sohag, the program facilitated
a discussion between local sheikhs about references to water in the Koran and the hadith, the collection of traditions about the Prophet Mohammed. In one such reference, the Prophet Mohammed sees his companion S’ad using excessive amounts of water while conducting Muslim ritual washings and intervenes saying, “What is this? You are wasting water.” When S’ad replies that it is permissible because he was performing his religious duty, the Prophet replied that wasting water is never permissible, “even if you take it from the bank of a rushing river.” The sheikhs retold these stories during their Friday sermons, ensuring that these environmental messages spread amongst their followers.

In India, USAID found that religious leaders helped to eliminate the deadly waterborne disease polio. When USAID began its ongoing Global Polio Eradication Initiative there in 1997, skeptics spread rumors that vaccinations were harmful. To counter
 this misinformation, USAID dispatched community mobilizers who joined forces with Hindu and Muslim religious leaders, local and traditional leaders, and community groups. In January 2013, India celebrated two years as polio-free. The campaign was so successful that USAID dispatched this coalition to spread messages about water, sanitation, handwashing, and other public health issues. Religious leaders have also worked with USAID to fight polio in Yemen, Nigeria, and other countries.

Schools are another essential 
place to partner with faiths, as the majority of the world's schools are religiously affiliated.  When schools teach lessons about hygiene and environmental conservation, they instill life-long habits. Often, faith-based schools will link these lessons with faith teachings as 
part of their curriculum, which is reinforced throughout their lives.

In Indonesia, the Darul Ulum Muslim boarding school mobilized students to plant trees and protect local water resources. Students received lessons on himma, the Islamic system of natural resource conservation that has been practiced for over 1400 years,
 and teachers, students, and even neighboring community members stepped up to plant trees, stop pollution, and designate protected areas of rivers. Word spread of the school’s success and now 
a consortium of 19 Muslim boarding schools with over 
30,000 students is, with financial support with USAID, working to protect two major national parks through himma. “Protecting the environment is a religious duty,” explained K.H. Mansyur Ma’mun, leader of the Al-Amanah boarding school in Cililin, Bandung.

Overcoming Challenges

Sometimes, religious practices can present health and 
water resource management challenges. But USAID has found that in these situations, working with religious communities is more important than ever.

Large gatherings of the faithful, like pilgrimages, can pose health risks because of the sheer number of people who come together in one place. But pilgrimages also present an opportunity to effectively spread messages about health to large audiences.

USAID successfully increased health awareness in Touba, Senegal, where 2 million Mouride Sufi Muslims gather annually for the Magal festival. For several years, large crowds, poor sanitation systems, and lack of clean drinking water led to disease outbreaks, including cholera. But in 2010, USAID sent a social marketing team to Touba and two other regional religious festivals to distribute 62,000 Aquatab water purification tablets. Each tablet was able to purify 20 liters of
 water for less than four cents per liter. The marketing team visited religious leaders, held product demonstrations, conducted radio interviews, and passed out samples during the festival. At that year’s festival, for the first time in history, there were no outbreaks of cholera or other acute diarrheal diseases.

Engaging with faith communities can also help mitigate the negative impacts that result from religious conflicts.

In coastal Kenya, which is plagued by fighting between religious and ethnic groups over water, land, and jobs, USAID’s Likoni Water-for- Peace project fostered coexistence through communal water projects, such as clearing sites, digging wells, and constructing water pumps. The project facilitated a community social agreement that outlines roles of the Coastal Inter-faith Council of Clerics, peace-building committees, a water committee, and community water users including elders, women, and youth. Community members transcended ethnic and religious lines to build and maintain the water structures together. "How can you be crosswise with your neighbor when you chat with her at the well; when you manage a project together; when you discuss how best to use this vital water?" said former USAID/Kenya Mission Director Erna Kerst at the project launch.

While there are challenges, faith communities continue to be indispensable partners in USAID’s work to make the world a better place. USAID Administrator
 Rajiv Shah summed it up in a 2012 interview when he said, “We want to do our work, which is about protecting people who are vulnerable around the world and expanding the reach of human dignity, as broadly as possible, and often 
it is communities of faith and faith-based organizations that are there working when the rest of the world has forgotten about people who have no other place to turn.”

A. Gambrill and C. Zeilberger

More Information

USAID/CFBCI newsletter

White House Office of Faith- Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah PBS Interview about Faith and Development

Last updated: September 04, 2013

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