Fresh water is essential for life, but it comes at a devastating cost for millions of children living in poverty.

This fictional short story is based on real-life experiences shared with Compassion by the children, families and church partners we serve across more than 25 countries.

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Today began the same way as yesterday, which began the same way as the day before it. The pink sun rose over the coastal plains of Tabao Rizal in the Philippines, illuminating silhouettes of crooked powerlines and thatched roofs. For a little girl like Ariane, watching the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of a child, she held on to a glimmer of hope and wonder that the day might end differently. After all, today was letter writing day.

Two loud thumps signalled to Ariane that the morning had begun, even though she was already awake. Weeks of worsening pain in her stomach left her unable to sleep. She turned in the direction of the noise to see her father, Alon, who had just placed two jerry cans overflowing with water onto the dirt floor of their home. Alon quietly took off his sodden boots and placed them outside the door before joining the rest of his family inside. He had returned from the first of his long, twice-daily treks through banana palms and over rocky ground to a stream for water.

Ariane lay quietly on the mattress. Constance and Jaymar slept soundly beside her, occasionally turning over, snoring or elbowing one another in the fight for more space. Carlo was curled up at their feet, tail curled in tightly, while the family's two chickens nestled tightly together in one corner of the room, shifting position whenever a gust of wind blew through the makeshift bamboo walls. Ariane’s mother, Lea, continued her whispered prayers in the darkness until Alon crouched down beside her.

“Sorry I’m late again,” Alon said, placing a kiss on Lea’s forehead. “I dropped in on Danilo. Just to take some water."

Ariane lay quietly, listening. Danilo lived alone nearby. His eyesight was too poor now for the six-kilometre walk to the stream. There weren’t any taps or toilets or sinks or pipes in their home, or anyone’s in their small village. The only water they had in abundance was seawater—boundless and beautiful, but salty and undrinkable. Fresh water was precious, and it came at a cost.

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Alon glanced over at Ariane. Seeing she was awake, he sat down on the edge of the mattress and scooped her gently onto his lap. Ariane winced as she felt her tummy heave.

“Up early again, little one?” Alon asked.

“I could have come with you to fetch the water, Papa!”

“Ah, sweet Ariane. You know how it works—you’re still too young for that. And anyway, I can see that you need to rest.” He rested his palm on Ariane’s forehead and looked over at Lea, who was now busy preparing breakfast.

“She’s still very hot, Lea. Did you take her to see Charito yesterday?”

Lea’s knife slowed as she turned to look at Alon. “I didn’t have time with work and the markets. If they sent her to a doctor, how could we pay for it? It will pass, just as it does with the other children.”

Alon shook his head. “You’re right, but I do think we should talk to Charito. The church can help with these things. We can’t just sit and watch the same thing happen again.”

Lea sighed and returned to her chopping in silence.

Ariane wrapped her arms around her belly. Last summer, she and Jaymar had become sick with fever and diarrhoea. The doctor had explained it was cholera caused by the dirty drinking water common in their area. Without treatment, he had explained, the children could die, so Ariane’s parents had sold their only goat to cover the costs. Both children recovered after a short stay in hospital, though they had no choice but to keep drinking the same water. This was before their family knew about Charito and the church.

Alon placed Ariane back onto the mattress and helped Lea strain some of the water through a cloth and into a cooking pot. A wave of nausea swept over Ariane as she eyed the cloth, now thick with sediment and river debris. She had grown used to the pains after drinking it, awful as they were. She wondered if the pigs and cows that shared the river felt the same sickness. Soon enough, Constance and Jaymar woke up and the family sat huddled together to share boiled sweet potato and cassava for breakfast, plus a little muddied coffee using leftover water.

Ariane’s family kept busy day and night. Jaymar, who was now old enough to work, joined his father most days as a fisherman. Other days, they worked as labourers or farmers, depending on what work they could find. Lea was a seamstress and often worked late into the evening, setting off to the warehouse after the others had arrived home. The family’s modest earnings would hopefully buy them enough supplies for a day. ‘One scratch, one peck,’ was a saying in their village. One peck at a time while scratching the ground for morsels.

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Constance was usually responsible for the family’s second trek of the day for more water. It was a two-hour round trip on her own and it caused her back and arms to ache, and inevitably made her late for school. Laden with heavy containers and navigating the slippery terrain near the river, the return journey was always hardest. Ariane wished she could help her older sister on these journeys to the stream. She hated seeing Constance so stiff and sore.

Still, things were slowly getting easier since the family met a woman named Charito. She was a pastor at a church nearby and had met Lea a little over six months ago while she was selling second-hand clothes at the market. They got talking and the family were invited to come to the church. Soon enough, Ariane was registered in a children’s program there. They taught her verses of Scripture, she sang in a choir, and could dance and play with her friends on the weekends. When Ariane was old enough to start school, they even paid for her uniform and a brand-new pair of shoes. It wasn’t just Ariane’s life that was changing. Constance and Jaymar often joined in at a youth group. Charito sometimes delivered hampers of food and supplies to their home on the days she knew their parents hadn’t found enough work. Charito would sit with Ariane’s mother long into the afternoon and talk and pray together over tea. Her mother laughed until she cried.

Soon enough, Ariane was sponsored. Jack and Angie from Melbourne, Australia. They wrote Ariane letters and told her they liked hiking, playing music and cooking pizzas. They had a pet dog called Winston, and Angie was expecting a baby. Jack and Angie wrote things like ‘you’re precious to us, Ariane. Don’t give up. Keep going. We pray every day for your family. Remember that God has a plan for you.’ Ariane told them she liked climbing trees, playing games and eating fish. She drew pictures of Carlo and the chickens to send them. She told her sponsors about last summer when she was sick and had to ride in an ambulance with her mother and brother, but then got to try ice cream at the hospital. Ariane treasured these letters and kept them stacked together in a special wooden box.

After breakfast, Jaymar and Alon left for work and Constance headed for the stream armed with empty buckets. Once Constance returned, she would walk Ariane to the church on her way to school. Lea carried on with the morning chores, working around Ariane who was curled back up on the mattress. Ariane closed her eyes, trying to forget the pain in her stomach, and thought over what she would like to tell Jack and Angie in her next letter.

There was a little knock at the door.

“Ariane? Lea? Hello?”

It was Charito’s voice. Lea’s face softened as she opened the door and greeted their visitor. Ariane slowly came up behind her.

Charito smiled with her familiar grin. “Hello Lea, it’s lovely to see you! I was hoping you’d be home this morning. I actually have something to give you. Would you mind if I came inside?”

“Not at all. Come in. It’s just Ariane and I here, though she’s not feeling well.”

Ariane’s head poked out from behind her mother’s legs.

“Oh, hello Ariane! I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling very good.” Charito turned to Lea. “We can take her to the health clinic today at the church, if you like?”

“I–yes. Yes, I would be so grateful for that.”

“Not a problem. You won’t need to worry about the cost. We will cover all that. It will be okay.”

Lea’s eyes glistened and she pulled Charito into an embrace.

Charito crouched down to Ariane. “I just told your mother I had something important to give your family, would you like to see it first?”

Ariane nodded and beamed back excitedly.

Charito turned and picked up a large plastic bucket with a small hose dangling from the bottom.

“What’s that?” asked Ariane, now standing up on the tips of her toes to peer inside.

“Well, it’s called a water filter. You pour water from the stream into this bucket, and then you press the valve on the end of this special hose to make the water come out. The water will pass through a tiny filter that cleans it, so it won’t keep making you sick. Shall we tip a little water in to try together?”

Ariane nodded enthusiastically. Charito followed them inside and set the bucket on a wooden stool next to the stove while Lea carefully tipped in some murky water from the jerry can. Charito held a small cup at the end of the hose as she pressed the valve. Ariane stared in awe as water trickled into the cup and her mother took a sip.

Lea’s eyes widened as she drained the glass.

Charito smiled. “Good, yes?”

“Like paradise,” said Lea. “Ariane, here, try some.” She filled up another glass.

Ariane took the cup. The water looked like liquid glass, clear and fresh. She took a sip. Tasteless, odourless, painless. When she went to the centre that afternoon, she couldn’t wait to tell Jack and Angie how this day ended differently.

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Dear Jack and Angie,

I greet you in the name of Jesus. I hope you are very well! Have you had your baby?

I’m happy to tell you that we got a water filter for our family! The new water tastes so good. It’s completely clear and it doesn’t smell. My mum says that we are in paradise since the filter came. She says her prayers have been answered. She can’t believe we don’t need to strain this new water and it won’t make us sick.

Charito said the church is building a well for our village to use. She says it will be finished by Christmas. I can't wait! We won't have to take long walks to the stream for water. My sister won’t miss any more school and her arms won’t keep hurting. Do you have a well near your house?

My mum says soon we might even have enough water to grow some vegetables outside. Do you grow vegetables? I like potatoes the most.

I’m so thankful for Charito and our church, and for you.

I would like to ask you, how is everything going there?

Love, Ariane.

UNICEF reports that over 700 children under the age of 5 die every day from diarrhoeal disease caused by drinking unsafe water and a lack of sanitation services.

As part of a holistic child development program across more than 25 countries, Compassion works in partnership with local churches to provide safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities for children and their families living in poverty. This support ranges from the provision of wells, rainwater tanks, pumps, water filters, septic systems, toilet blocks and more depending on the local context and needs.

You can provide children in poverty with access to safe water by making a tax-deductible donation to Water and Sanitation.

Words by Rachel Howlett.