By Greg Warner
Water, water everywhere. Except where you need it.
For David Harding, it’s all about the water. Too much here. Too little there. No one understands the power of water any better than Harding, international disaster response coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Harding saw too much water destroy cities and cultures during tsunamis in Japan and Southeast Asia. In Ethiopia and elsewhere, he sees the lack of clean water kill people and cheapen life.
But Harding also understands how a water-drilling rig and $15,000 can make an arid village livable and life sustainable.
Water — too much of it — was what spurred Cooperative Baptists to begin a disaster-response ministry in 2004. It began after the Christmas tsunami killed 230,000 people while wiping out huge coastal regions of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Like other Christians worldwide, Cooperative Baptists insisted on responding.
“For us to have sat and not have offered physical assistance in time of need would have been really unconscionable,” Harding explained. The urgent need galvanized the Fellowship and gave its churches a common purpose, he said. “There is a sense of community when pain is severe and people are in shock.”
The Fellowship’s disaster response ministry was born that winter — but more out of necessity than strategy.
Many other Christian charities — larger, older and better funded than CBF — will have a more immediate impact when a disaster strikes. With relief budgets 10-to-20 times larger than the Fellowship’s entire budget, those groups will get to a disaster sooner and bring more people and supplies.
But even though CBF’s response is small in comparison to the disaster and that of other organizations, it is nonetheless essential, Harding said. The full impact can’t be measured in terms of meals served or supplies distributed. “You can do a lot with a little bit of money,” Harding noted, adding, “It deepens and broadens our presence there.”
So when disaster strikes, the Fellowship’s approach is to find a niche where the organization can make a meaningful impact for the long term.
The Fellowship doesn’t go it alone. CBF coordinates its response with Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, and local churches in the disaster region.
“We want to work with the local churches, coming alongside of them to promote their ability to act,” Harding noted.
“Because we’re not large, [when a disaster strikes] we could easily spend our money in one day. So we try to find ways to be a bridge between the relief work and the recovery. We try to address the root problems” — like poverty, access to clean water, lack of jobs and empowerment.
“We cultivate a vision to stretch our resources into developmental work,” he said. So, after the South Asian tsunami of 2004, CBF stayed on the job more than five years. After Haiti’s earthquake, it was four years. And, even though CBF had no personnel in Japan up until late 2013, it worked through partner organizations for three years after that country’s 2011 tsunami.
Each disaster response is carefully measured, Harding said. “We weigh what happens, the nature of event, our personnel in the region.” Then, depending on the response from the CBF constituency, an action is planned.
In the case of Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake killed about 100,000 people, the response from Cooperative Baptists was significant. In Syria, where 3 million people have fled the three-year-old sectarian war, Harding is coordinating a response with Chaouki and Maha Boulos, CBF field personnel in Lebanon. The Bouloses are assisting some of the 400,000-plus Syrian refugees fleeing across the Lebanon-Syria border. Many of the refugees are Christians. “Some don’t want to go into the Muslim-controlled refugee camps,” Harding said.
Maha Boulos started working with a few Syrian women in a Beirut apartment two years ago. Now the couple is providing 400 Syrian refugee families in Beirut with food, beds and medicine. Working through native Bedouin friends in the Bekaa Valley to the north, the Bouloses are assisting another 90 Syrian families there. And they are sending money to an associate in the Syrian capital of Damascus to assist another 35 families, a few of the 4 million Syrians “internally displaced” by war.
For Harding, disaster takes many forms and not just the kind that make for good TV. Of equal concern to him are the “silent disasters” — chronic, systemic problems that keep the world’s poor from rising out of poverty, becoming self-sustaining or living healthy lives. War is just one of the factors that puts people at risk.
The deadliest “silent disaster” is the global need for clean water, Harding said. According to Water.org, more than 3.4 million people die each year from water-related causes, such as the lack of sanitation, water purification or hygiene. An estimated 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water, leaving them vulnerable to those deadly conditions.
Harding also knows that water can inspire. The idea of bringing clean water to those in need spurs Christians to give sacrificially.
“People can identify with the need for water,” he said. “It is becoming the great unifier in world missions. When people learn of other people drinking contaminated water, they think, ‘How can we allow that?’”
“Everyone has a right to water,” Harding added.
Harding and his wife, Merrie, have been CBF field personnel since 1996, serving first in the Middle East for five years. They are now based in Orlando, Fla., but spend much of their time in Ethiopia, where David Harding was born to missionary parents. Merrie Harding is a physical and occupational therapist who works in medical clinics in Ethiopia.
The couple was in the Middle East during the attacks of September 11. Fellowship mission leaders asked them to develop a response to human needs that emerged in Afghanistan after the United States invasion of that country. The Hardings initiated an Afghanistan partnership with World Vision in 2002. With the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Fellowship became involved on a major scale.
Initially, the Hardings were responsible for CBF’s domestic and international disaster response. After the historic 2005 hurricane season in the U.S., which included Hurricane Katrina, those two duties were divided.
Harding’s job is anything but glamorous. Sure, he flies around the world all the time, but not to Singapore or St. Moritz. He goes to the poorest, bleakest and most devastated places in the world — wherever war, storm, earthquake or famine has left people on the brink of death or hopelessness.
So what does he do in between disasters? Well, you’ll probably find him assisting another water-starved Ethiopian village drill a well that will keep people alive and healthy.
“We work there until an emergency comes along,” said Harding via phone from Turkey, a way-station on their latest trip to Ethiopia.
Led by Harding, the Fellowship’s drilling efforts have produced 350 wells in drought-plagued Ethiopia alone since 2006. “We like to do about 40 wells a year,” the water engineer said. The need has become even more acute as refugees from war-torn South Sudan have fled into western Ethiopia, he noted.
Nearly 75 percent of Ethiopians — about 55 million people — don’t have access to clean water, Harding said. Many Ethiopians drink from rivers known for famine, malnutrition and cholera outbreaks. Hand-dug wells were too shallow to survive recurrent droughts.
Well-drilling sounds simple enough. But a successful water strategy is much more complex.
“You can’t drill a well just on your own,” Harding said. “Just drilling a well leaves very little capacity if something breaks. And 50 percent of wells don’t work after a few years because of [a lack of] maintenance.”
So before a well is dug, field personnel organize a local water-use committee to take responsibility for the project. Residents are trained in simple hygiene and sanitation.
“There are some very simple things you can do to have healthy kids”– things as simple as building latrines — Harding said. The goal is to create “ODF communities” (Open-Defecation-Free), which is the key to basic water hygiene.
According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion people worldwide lack basic sanitation, and diseases related to sanitation (primarily diarrhea) are the second highest cause of death worldwide for children under the age of five.
So drilling a well for a village is “a package deal,” Harding explained. To be successful, it must include sanitation and hygiene training.
A water-use committee is formed with four women and three men. The gender imbalance is intentional, Harding said. “Women are the change-agents in their communities. They are the ones handling the water. Men equal authority, but women equal change in the community.”
When fighting poverty and disease in the developing world, “there are a lot of interconnected issues,” Harding continued.
For instance, keeping girls in school past 9th grade cuts the infant-mortality rate in half, Harding pointed out. And water, hygiene and dignity are related to education, entrepreneurship and female empowerment.
That interconnection is one reason why CBF field personnel enlist Self-Help Groups to lead water-use committees. The SHGs, also known as Sustainable Living Groups, are a strategy of organizing poor residents of developing countries into small, self-governing peer groups.
Sustainable Living Groups are being used by Christians worldwide to promote savings, self-discipline, community investment and entrepreneurship. By regularly saving even small amounts, SLG participants — usually women — eventually are able to loan each other money to begin small businesses or farms to support their families.
When it comes to well-drilling, SLGs also provide a ready-made structure to oversee the village’s new well by ensuring hygiene instruction, governing fair usage, and collecting a small fee to fund well maintenance.
“Our role is to be facilitators and build the infrastructure” to support Sustainable Living Groups and village well-drilling, Harding said. “We help them set up groups and then train facilitators in local churches to lead them.”
In all these efforts — SLGs, well-drilling and even disaster response — CBF’s approach is to work through local churches, giving those efforts credibility, authenticity and staying power.
In a new development this summer, CBF is enlisting individuals and churches to sponsor SLGs in Ethiopia.
“We will be asking for $2,000 per year (or $100 per month) per group to establish and expand groups with local Ethiopian churches,” Harding said. “We do not give money to the groups or individuals. The funds are used [for] the coordination, facilitation and management of the overall infrastructure needed to organize the groups and coach them to maturity.”
The funds will pay for training in leadership, hygiene, administration and entrepreneurship, along with community research, quality control, transportation and operating expenses.
“It is exciting to see lives transformed through this initiative, as dignity is restored and responsibility is taken to achieve potential,” Harding concluded.