by Tristan Rayner in New Eco on Friday 4 July 2014

Clean water. Something that, if you’re reading this, you probably take for granted. Deliciously granted. But as most people know, we’re lucky to have access to abundant clean water at very low cost. But if you were given clean, clear water for the first time, what would you think?

George McGraw, founder of DIGDEEP, who work to change the way people think about water, spoke recently at the Ford Trend Conference, in Detroit, at Ford World Headquarters, along with representatives from Charity:Water, Ford, and Brown-Forman, who make Jack Daniels by way of a beautiful natural spring in Tennessee. (Irony was not lost that the city of Detroit were shutting off water to thousands of residents behind on their bills).

GeorgeMcGraw at the Ford Trend conference

George McGraw for DIGDEEP at the Ford Trend conference (Image: Lost At E Minor)

George’s 20 minute speech touched on the fight for clean water, and the 4Liter (sic) challenge, a yearly charitable event where families of the first-world try to live off just four litres of water per week.

But it was an anecdote he told about a South Sudan community that made our jaws drop.

Children wait at a well

Children wait at a well in South Sudan (Image: DIGDEEP)

The Story

George had spoke with an aid worker, Janella, volunteering and living with a community in Wau, in South Sudan.

While a new, clean freshwater well had been installed in her village, Janella was unable to understand why rates of disease had not declined in the community.

It took her some weeks to figure out just what was going on – finally spotting a family collecting water from an open pit that the village had been told not to drink. Janella asked them why they were drinking the dirty water.

The villagers weren’t using the beautiful new clean water tap. And when Janella asked why, they said they actually preferred the pit water.

Why? Amazingly, the villagers didn’t like the taste of the clean water! Too sterile, boring, even faintly metallic. Pure water has no taste, and the villagers didn’t understand why that was a good thing.

They had never experienced clean water before and so to them, the taste of clean water seemed so boring and metallic and the taste of dirty water was sweet and soft on their pallet and they associated those flavours with health.” – George McGraw.

Janella was only able to convince people to stop using the dirty water by holding numerous community meetings after she discovered what was happening.

A DIGDEEP well in action (Image:DIGDEEP)

A DIGDEEP well in action (Image: DIGDEEP)

It’s a lesson for us all. You can’t just throw money at a problem. You need to integrate with communities, encourage understanding, and make sure that everyone understands the benefits.

One other story McGraw tells is about a question he asks children when he visits communities that are suffering through contaminated water problems.

George McGraw speaking at the Ford Trend conference (Image: Lost At E Minor)

George McGraw speaking at the Ford Trend conference (Image: Lost At E Minor)

McGraw asks kids how many of them have had parasite worms (a consequence of drinking contaminated water). Each time, all of them raised their hands. When he asked who thought it was normal to have parasite worms, all of them again raised their hands.

They were surprised to learn that it’s not normal. And that McGraw, and most of the developed world, have never had a worm.

‘We blew their minds’, McGraw said. ‘These little pockets of information are so revolutionary that they take this information home to their parents and say, ‘Do you know that it’s not normal to have worms?’

Click these links to make donations to help provide clean water to communities in need: DIGDEEP or Charity:Water.