In Philadelphia, where the asphalt roads that crisscross the city are warmed by the sun each morning, it’s not all that uncommon to see a burst fire hydrant or water main spraying water onto the streets, creating ankle-deep puddles next to the sidewalks. It’s become a common image — children play in the cool, wet stream that’s the urban version of a waterfall.
Far away in Africa, in the Republic of South Sudan, you can go a week without seeing a paved road, and there’s hardly enough safe, drinkable water for a family of four to share for hydration, let alone to let pour over them in the street on a hot day. And for most children there, water is not for play, it’s for life — if they’re lucky.
That’s what pastor Steve Huber came to know as reality for the South Sudanese during his trip to the nation in May. South Sudan is a relatively new country, and is separate from Sudan, sometimes called North Sudan. On July 9, the Republic of South Sudan will celebrate its second anniversary as an independent state in Africa.
Huber, who lives in Northern Liberties, is lead pastor of Fishtown’s liberti church east, 2424 York St. In a June 13 interview at liberti east, Huber said that in South Sudan, one in five children will die before age five. Half of those deaths are a result of waterborne illnesses. Half of the people in South Sudanese hospitals, he said, are admitted because of waterborne illnesses.
“It’s one thing to know the stats,” Huber said, “But it’s another thing to meet moms, holding their babies in their arms … some have had to bury their children,” he said.
Liberti, which has a network of six churches across the city, held its annual Easter Outreach project earlier this year, and raised more than $65,000 and gave away 2,000 meals to local families in need.
Liberti partnered with the organization Water is Basic to use some of those funds to dig three water wells in South Sudan. The three wells this year are in addition to the three wells the church funded in South Sudan in 2012.
Huber visited South Sudan along with his 14-year-old son, Lukas, and other church representatives to see the three wells in the city of Yei that had been dug by South Sudanese laborers. Raising the money, but having South Sudanese workers dig the wells, Huber said, empowers South Sudanese business.
During the trip, Huber and others also conducted pastoral training with aspiring faith leaders there. Last summer, he said a team of teachers from liberti went to South Sudan to do teacher training, and the church hopes to have medical professionals conduct medical training there in the future.
“In the developing world, if you look on lists of what are the best ways to help, digging water wells is number one,” Huber said. “It’s a game changer for health, time and resources.”
The experience of living in South Sudan for a couple weeks, Huber said, deeply shook him.
“I’m a guy with a flexible comfort zone,” he said. “Most people think of Kenya as shocking in terms of the needs there and lack of infrastructure. South Sudan makes Kenya look like Epcot Center.”
In South Sudan, most roads aren’t paved and turn into muddy pits when it rains. Hospitals are few and far between, traffic is pandemonium, and plumbing and electricity are rare, Huber said.
People are, generally, very poor, but the cost of living is very high, since products and resources have to be trucked into small villages from far away. A gallon of gas, Huber said, is $15.
Illness is rampant as well. Many die from malaria, and Huber saw his fair share of enormous bugs, he said, during his trip. To prepare to spend time in Africa, he and the others who traveled had to take several rounds of anti-malaria and other medicines — medicines not available to people who actually live in South Sudan.
“It’s a humbling thing,” Huber said, “I know I’m not going to get malaria or typhoid because I have the money to pay for medicine.”
The water crisis in South Sudan is stunning, said Huber, calling it a “justice issue.” Mostly women — or, Huber said, children, since many children support their families because their parents have died — travel to rivers and streams several times per day with large canteens to fill for their families’ needs.
The water sources, however, are tainted by animal waste and other contaminants. Families have to use river or stream water for drinking, bathing, washing and cooking.
It’s a crisis that may be more easily solved than one could imagine.
“Forty million dollars would bring clean water to everyone in South Sudan,” Huber said. “Last year, Americans spent 370 million on Halloween costumes for their pets.”
Holding up the five-gallon yellow canteens women use to bring water to their families — they’re known as ‘jerry cans’ and weigh 45 pounds when full — Huber said one can filled with loose change could bring clean water to 1,000 people.
Despite the tragic circumstances of their lifestyles, Huber said, the South Sudanese are a warm, kind, relationship-based people.
“They’re just walking to a different rhythm,” he said. “Their greetings are longer, their eye contact is longer, they’re hospitable and generous. We have a lot to learn from them.”
Reflecting upon the experience of being in South Sudan and having his church enact positive change there, Huber said his emotions are mixed.
“I’m super glad we did it, but we don’t want to break our arms patting ourselves on the back,” Huber said. “It’s like, ‘Well, what do we do now?’”
In the future, Huber said the church will “definitely” raise money for more wells in South Sudan. It’s a large problem the church is focused on helping, bit by bit, he said.
“Our mission is to live, speak and serve as the very presence of Jesus Christ, here in the neighborhood and around the world,” he said.
Huber said that as a pastor, he feels connected to the way the South Sudanese live.
“Churches are the artery of making people’s lives better there,” he said. Church leaders help provide food and water to locals, and small churches are often packed with hundreds of parishioners.
Huber said he hopes learning of the water crisis in South Sudan will inspire people to help in small ways, no matter their religious backgrounds.
“Despite what we believe, can’t we agree to partner together for these kinds of justice issues? Who’s not going to be ‘for’ clean water?”
Learn more about the South Sudanese water crisis and donate at waterisbasic.org. Watch a trailer for the independent film about the South Sudanese water crisis, “Ru: Water is Life,” at ruthefilm.com.