Lily Tanner holds a potable water container. She has made it her mission to raise funds for the Thirst Project.

A person can live weeks without food, but only about four days without water. Not all water qualifies as life-supporting, however. In Eswatini, formerly Swaziland — a tiny landlocked country in southwestern Africa ravaged by HIV/AIDS — dirty water kills quicker than the dreaded virus.

The solution isn’t shipping pallets of plastic bottles. The solution is digging wells.

This solution is Lily Tanner’s mission. The 18-year-old recent O’Neal School graduate works toward this goal with the Thirst Project. Through a penny-jar fundraiser, she raised $5,000 in two weeks, with the help of parents and O’Neal staff.

In Eswatini, each new 90-foot well costs $12,000 and lasts about 40 years.

Tanner learned of the Thirst Project through (Kiwanis) Key Club membership.

“I went to a rally in 2018 and heard speakers who had been to Africa and seen what was happening,” she says.

She learned more on a trip to Pepperdine University in California, where she met project originators. In Eswatini, women and children must walk miles every day to collect water in jugs, then carry them home. A 5-gallon jug weighs 44 pounds. Children carry smaller jugs, but balancing them on their heads and shoulders causes spinal problems. This chore also interferes with school and work opportunities.

“It stuck with me. I thought about it every single day,” Tanner says.

The Thirst Project was started in California, in 2008, by eight college students who raised awareness of the global clean drinking water deficit by handing out bottles on Hollywood Boulevard, in hopes of explaining their mission. Their $70 investment raised only $1,700 — but much attention. Soon they were bringing the story to schools and colleges. Money began “pouring” in. In 10 years, the Thirst Project, now an official Key Club service partner and the world’s largest youth water organization, has raised more than $10 million to dig 3,000 wells in 13 countries. Their goal, by 2022: to provide clean water to the entire nation of Eswatini, population 1,160,000.

Tanner has never traveled outside the U.S., let alone to Third World countries, which is why she sought an international project through Key Club membership. Closer to home, her service commitments include volunteering at the Sandhills Branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern N.C., where she packs boxes for seniors.

Tanner had planned to study early childhood education at Hood College in Maryland, her grandmother’s alma mater, but because of COVID-19, she may enroll at Sandhills Community College for the time being. Going forward, besides donating from her own earnings and spreading the word on social media, Tanner hopes to make presentations at schools to illustrate water deficiencies, perhaps inspire other fundraisers.

When her education is complete “I want to move to Eswatini to teach and build wells.”

As for the primitive conditions often shocking to Americans — no running water or sewage systems in rural areas — “I’m prepared for what I’ll see there. I’m fine with it if I’m able to help provide clean water and education at the same time.”

Tanner’s conviction was reinforced by a personal contact: “Last summer I met a girl (from Eswatini) nicknamed Happiness. She had gone through so much … she walked miles to fetch water every day, but she was still smiling,” Tanner says. “That taught me never to take water for granted.”

For more information, or to make a donation, contact Lily Tanner at lilytanner20@gmail.com.

Contact Deborah Salomon at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.

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