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Clean water, pure hearts

8/29/2012

By Don Graham

BIHAR STATE, India —Aaron Blanton rubs the sleep from his eyes as he slides from his bunk on an overnight train to Patna, India. The trip, scheduled at nine hours, has now dragged on for more than 13. Worse, Blanton’s suitcase didn’t make his flight into New Delhi. He’s been living in the same pair of clothes for three days.

It sounds like a travel horror story from his time on tour as the drummer for SONICFLOOd, or more recently, front man for the Christian rock group By the Tree. Aside from a few wrinkles and a bad case of bed head, however, Blanton seems ready to rock. But it’s not a gig that’s brought the 32-year-old Christian musician more than 10,000 miles from his California home — it’s clean water.

Blanton is part of OneLife, a student-driven movement sponsored by IMB. It challenges young adults to use their “one life” to make a difference in others’ lives for Christ’s glory, meeting physical and spiritual needs around the globe. Specifically, Blanton wants to raise awareness for OneLife’s “One Cup of Water” project. The idea is simple. Repair or replace broken, hand-pumped wells in 1,200 rural villages across Bihar, India’s poorest state. The payoff? Providing clean drinking water to thousands of men, women and children living in absolute poverty.       

CLEAN WATER, CHEAP

It’s a cheap fix, at least by Western standards. Before heading to a nearby village for a firsthand look at the problem, Blanton stops at a roadside plumbing store (shack). He emerges with a pair of brand-new water pump handles, essentially 2-foot long, cast-iron bars. Broken handles are a common problem among village wells in the area, rendering otherwise good pumps useless. Together, the handles cost 400 rupees. That’s about $8 each — less than the cost of a movie ticket.

“We’re talking under 25 bucks to give a village clean water. That’s amazing,” Blanton says with a grin. He lugs the handles to the SUV and the OneLife team presses on. The village is at least an hour’s drive over rough, sometimes crowded, rural roads that wind through mustard farms and rice fields. It’s beautiful country, and Blanton’s excitement is palpable. 

“Every time I come here it’s the same impression — that it is possible to change lives in a place that seems impossible. That’s what God’s grace does,” he says. “Water is one of those essential ingredients. … But they just don’t have the means.

“I hear the question, ‘Why can’t they do it themselves?’ a lot as I get into these kinds of humanitarian projects. But that’s not what the Bible says. … It says if they ask, give. It says if we see a need, fill it. … Why wouldn’t we want to help? That’s my question back.”

‘WATER IS OUR LIFE’

As Blanton’s team pulls into the village, a swarm of curious Biharis greets them. A rusty, green water pump stands ready, but its handle is missing.

About 200 people live here in the shadow of a small mountain, eking out their survival as subsistence farmers, coaxing food from the rocky soil. Mud, brick and straw are used to build homes. Hundreds of dung patties (fuel for cooking) dry in the sun on the homes’ walls, each bearing the handprint of the person who formed them.

Chickens, children and a few stray, hungry-looking dogs wander the single dirt road that runs the length of the village. A mother sits in the dirt picking lice from her daughter’s hair. Other women ferry containers of water balanced on their heads. The village has no running water. Every drop needed for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing must be carried by hand.

With the help of two local church planters, Rajesh and Deepak, the OneLife team talks with 35-year-old Ram Palimanjhi, who lives in the village. “Water is our life,” Palimanjhi says simply. He points to the handleless pump, explaining that it hasn’t worked for some time. But Palimanjhi’s village has been fortunate, Rajesh says. They have a second well only a few minutes’ walk away. It’s not as deep, but its pump is operational — for now.  

Bihar’s hot, dry summers complicate the problem. Ground water levels will drop, often drying up shallower wells like the one near Palimanjhi’s village, leaving even fewer sources of clean water. It’s a serious problem across the area, Rajesh says, explaining that more than 100 families may depend on a single well. As summer progresses, crowds will begin forming around the ever-dwindling number of functional wells, forcing many to wait, sometimes an hour or more in 110-degree weather — just for a few gallons of water.

That’s time villagers could spend working their farms, caring for children or possibly attending school, Rajesh points out. Instead it is wasted gathering a commodity much of the world takes for granted.

“We can just go grab a 24-pack at Target,” Blanton says. “There’s no comparison to what they have to do for water and what we have to do for water. … When I wake up in the morning to brush my teeth, I get out of my comfy bed and I walk a few steps to my sink.”

Once this well is dry, Palimanjhi and other village families will be forced to walk almost two miles to the nearest deep well. Or worse, they’ll drink from nearby water sources like an uncovered well, stream or pond, risking diarrhea, parasites and other water-borne illnesses. That’s unless Blanton and the OneLife team can repair the village’s pump.

BIG JOB

But this is just a single well, and the problem is often more serious than a broken handle. Fortunately bigger repairs are still relatively inexpensive by Western standards. According to Rajesh, $40 will replace an entire pump head, $280 fixes a broken cylinder (part of a pump’s internal mechanism), and $550 pays for digging and outfitting a brand-new well, pump included.

That’s one of Rajesh and Deepak’s big goals for the One Cup of Water project. They don’t want to just fix broken wells — they want to dig new ones, too.

“If we can put four or five hand pumps in a village, that would be a sufficient source of clean water. That’s about 4,000 to 5,000 hand pumps we will repair or install. It is a great task,” Rajesh says.

That’s why he and Deepak say they are grateful for Blanton’s partnership and the potential support he’ll help rally. Working in partnership with national churches, they’re envisioning dozens of OneLife student teams descending upon Bihar over the course of the next three years, finding, assessing and GPS-tagging hundreds of broken pumps. Bihari believers will come behind them to repair or replace the pumps, and in the process, form relationships that will lay the groundwork for sharing the Gospel. What’s more, Rajesh and Deepak are already seeing results from a small handful of pumps they’ve managed to repair themselves.  

“Last summer this pump [that we fixed] was working, and it was an amazing thing. All the other hand pumps were dry, but this hand pump was not. … And people were saying this was because of God,” Rajesh explains.

LIVING WATER

He believes that giving people clean water is the perfect entrée for sharing Living Water, too. 

“We are sharing the Gospel directly and people are believing. But when we do this kind of work (repairing water pumps) for the Lord, it glorifies God because we are not only saying, but doing.”   

Blanton couldn’t agree more.

“We see Jesus do that all the time in the Bible, meeting people’s physical needs,” he says. “We know we’re called to make disciples and share the Good News. But we’re also called to help widows and orphans. 

“That’s why I think this project is so awesome. … When we leave, not only have we shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we’ve also left them with a working pump. And both of those things are life-giving.” 

GET INVOLVED

Blanton admits he can barely fix a toilet, let alone a water pump in India. But he says that’s no excuse to not get involved.

“For us in America, I don’t know that there is a ton of risk to dig in your pocket and pull out a few bucks that you probably wouldn’t miss and put it down so that people can have water and the Gospel. The risk, I think, is not doing that. The risk is saying, ah, someone else will do it; someone else will take care of it. The risk is not laying hold of what God has asked you to do specifically.”

The real requirement, he adds, is a compassionate heart and desire to make a difference in someone’s life. Blanton says God awakened his own passion for India about five years ago when he made his first trip to the slums in Mumbai. It was the first time he’d been confronted with true poverty.

“God began to chip away some of the stone around my heart that I didn’t even know was there in terms of caring for others,” he says. “He was saying, ‘I have something greater than any song you could ever write or sing.’

“I used to think that music was what I was all about, and how I would leave some kind of mark that I was here on the earth. But I’m seeing now that it’s really a lot less about my name, my career, my songs. It’s about something that I never even considered until God showed me a way that I could do something that transcends all of that — and that’s to share the Gospel and provide clean water.”

Want to be a part of OneLife’s “One Cup of Water” project? You can give, go or simply spread the word. Learn more at onelifematters.org or email go@onelifematters.org.

Don Graham is a senior writer at IMB.

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