Yesterday was World Water Day. Like you probably did, I missed it.
World Water Day is an annual United Nations designated holiday, celebrated around the globe every March 22nd. I’m a little embarrassed that it sneaked by me again. It was created at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. I was there.
Before that I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire, central Africa, which today is again called the Congo. I lived in a series of mud houses in small villages. I helped people to build concrete “spring boxes”, which are a way to get clean water from underground sources into peoples’ bodies. This was essential, since young children whose parents gave them river or surface water died of causes linked to contaminated water at an astounding rate—sometimes one out of two before the age of five.
Garrison Keillor probably didn’t know it was World Water Day yesterday, either. But his column published in yesterday’s Post happened to say “Good water is a beautiful thing. Drink it and praise the Lord.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
These days, I work closer to home, on issues related to the Anacostia River and the public lands and communities around it. Nobody in Washington dies of contaminated surface water, and thanks to DC Water, our municipal water is clean and safe.
But the river through the heart of the Nation’s Capital continues to be badly polluted. Every time we have a big rain, DC’s 120-year-old sewer system overflows into the Anacostia a mix of surface runoff and sewage containing fecal bacteria – the principal killer of those little African kids I used to know. This sad old infrastructure situation severely limits the productive use of this extraordinary natural resource at the foot of Capitol Hill. It’s also not much of a stretch to make the link between the contaminated Anacostia and the generally neglected state of the 1200 acres of public parkland around the river, or the fact that the river and the public land constitute a formidable barrier between the west side of the District and the east, contributing to stunning differences in educational achievement, media income, health, and many other indicators.
Next year, the first phase of DC’s sewer system overflow fix will come on line. An enormous underground storage system will expand the sewage infrastructure, holding nearly all the overflow until it can be decontaminated. DC ratepayers are already paying for this with their water bills, and will be for years to come.
Getting most fecal bacteria out of our river in 2018 will be a great achievement for social justice in DC. Coincidentally, 2018 is also the 100th Anniversary of the often-overlooked Anacostia Park flanking the river; a waterfront park bigger than New York City’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is time for a serious conversation about how to remake the Anacostia River and the public parkland around it into a great asset for the District of Columbia.
Someone named Guy Ryder is the chair of the United Nations organization that promotes clean and healthy fresh water around the globe. I saw a quote from him this morning: “Do what you can, do it with others, and do it with passion.” That’s what I tried to do long ago in Zaire, and what lots of us are trying to do with the Anacostia and its parklands. Join us in our work.