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Why a tap is a priceless gift

Red Cross ambassador Chris Bath tests her endurance carrying water up a hill in Timor-Leste.

Thursday November 19, 2015

Chris Bath in Timor-Leste
Chris Bath talks with young mum Antonia*, whose life has become easier since a tap stand was installed near her home. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Zayne D'Crus

I will never look at my garden tap the same way again. Never. Not after seeing the impact two little taps have had on more than 600 lives in Timor-Leste.   

I know a tap here and there will not cure poverty and hardship in communities across this very new nation, but maybe go outside now and give your tap a little pat as you read why its Timorese comrades are a huge help.  

For centuries, women and children across Timor have trekked for kilometres daily just to find water. Tens of thousands still do in 2015. It means kids have continually interrupted education, women are disempowered and families suffer from diseases that could be easily prevented with clean water and good hygiene practices. 

The knock-on effect is imprisonment in a cycle of poverty that contributes to high rates of illness and violence.  

In Oralan village, at the foot of limestone hills east of Dili, women and kids used to make a daily four-kilometre round trip, up a treacherously rocky climb and down again, lugging water.  (If you're already admiring your garden tap, grab a few buckets or a jerry can or two, fill them up, grab your kids and lug the lot up your nearest hill and see how long you last!)  

Despite that daily grind, the water they carted back was far from Perrier.  Nearby water sources are commonly contaminated by all manner of nasties including animal excrement and silt but it was the best they had.  

In 2011, Timor-Leste Red Cross began talking to the community about improving its water supply. They suggested using a gravity-fed system to divert water from a mountain spring, through kilometres of pipes to a tap stand in the village. That would be followed by digging and constructing outdoor pit dunnies: the first toilets ever in the village. Plus hand washing and hygiene lessons for all.   

Oralan's residents had to be on board.  Water systems need maintaining and without residents taking ownership of that, the project would've been doomed.  

Villagers had seen the success of a similar Red Cross project in a neighbouring community and work began in Oralan in 2012.  Villagers and Red Cross volunteers worked side by side: finding and enclosing the spring water source to protect it from contamination; building a sediment tank downstream; laying pipes over incredibly rugged terrain, digging 67 latrines; and rigging up hand-washing stations for post-toilet use. To keep the system running, water user groups were trained in maintenance and given tools.  

I had the privilege of attending the system's inauguration party. Oralan's jubilant residents danced all night.  Lacking their stamina, I could not.  

Seeing their sheer joy at something so basic as accessible clean water and outdoor loos was humbling. Knowing that both will be a long-term benefit, not just a band-aid solution for this community, is even better.  

In dollars and cents, the equipment for the system cost around $38,000, with design and construction managed through a partnership between Red Cross in Timor-Leste and Australia.    

But the return on investment is priceless: Better health for all.  Better education opportunities for kids.  Improved quality of life for women.  Less daily community stress. Less violence.  A culture of better hygiene that will be passed on through Oralan's young generation. (Under 21s outnumber adults 7:1 in Timor-Leste.)  

As a donor and Red Cross ambassador, it was great to see my money going directly towards something that will genuinely change people's lives. But just as important to me, was that this project was not foisted upon the village, but done with great respect for Oralan's residents, in consultation and conjunction with them, to ensure its ongoing success.  

So the next time you use your garden tap or even eyeball it across the yard, maybe this Christmas think about giving a tax deductible gift to help Red Cross change the lives of people across the world one tap at a time.  

Story by Chris Bath, November 2015

One more gift to Red Cross, after you've finished buying presents for family, friends and colleagues, could give a young child clean water to drink. It could also ensure someone who has no family receives a daily phone call to check they're okay, or a teenager facing homelessness has somewhere to go for shelter and a hot meal.