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Lithuania: U.S. Students Help Clean Up Drinking Water

Washington, 15 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A group of U.S. high school students recently donated money to help clean up the drinking water in a small Lithuanian city an ocean away and more than 6,400 kilometers from their school.

The students, from a rural town in the northeastern state of New York called Chenango Forks, donated $365 to aid in restoring clean drinking water to the Lithuanian city of Siauliai.

The American students are members of a school project called the "Model United Nations Club." The students create their own mini United Nations and imitate the procedures and steps the real organization takes in order to solve complex international, social and environmental issues.

Kate Botting, the secretary-general of the Chenango Model United Nations Club, told RFE/RL that the students were looking for a good international cause to which to donate money the club had saved.

The students found the Lithuanian project called "Wells: What is in the Water We Drink?" on the Internet through an organization called the Virtual Foundation. The Foundation is a U.S.-based, private environmental organization founded in 1996 to help indigenous citizens groups around the worlds improve their environment, health and quality of life.

Irmgard Hunt of the Virtual Foundation told RFE/RL that individuals and organizations from around the world are invited to submit small-scale funding requests - costing less than $5,000 - to the Foundation. The Foundation in turn selects certain proposals and displays them on the Internet in hopes of finding potential donors.

The project selected by the American students was submitted by a small, Lithuanian environmental organization called the Aukuras Club. The club, which has 12 members, asked for $980 to help restore clean drinking water to Siauliai, reportedly one of the most polluted cities in Lithuania.

After a slight adjustment by the Virtual Foundation, the project was budgeted and posted on the Internet as requiring $1,090.

Rimantas Krankalis, project director of the Aukuras Club, wrote in his proposal that the quality of drinking water in Siauliai is "very bad" and contains harmful amounts of iron, pollutants and sediments.

Krankalis wrote that a big part of the problem is that many housing districts in Siauliai are not part of the municipal sewerage. As a result, he said, these residents must pour sewage in specifically constructed tanks and periodically empty the sewage in designated spots.

But Krankalis added that due to "carelessness, tolerance of neighbors, and economic difficulties" raw sewage is often just poured into gutters, streets, and yards, eventually making its way into the drinking water.

The main goal of the project, wrote Krankalis, is to educate officials and residents of Siauliai about the dangers of drinking polluted water and to help get the local government involved in cleaning up the water.

Krankalis says he also hopes to hold a conference for Siauliai school children called "What is in the Water We Drink?"

Botting says the students debated five Virtual Foundation projects before making their selection.

She says they chose the Lithuanian project because it was practical, dealt with a human health issue, involved specific tasks which worked toward specific solutions, and had long-term solutions such as policy making, influencing public officials, education and public participation.

Botting adds that the students considered water pollution a serious problem worldwide and hoped that the money given to the city of Siauliai would contribute in a small way to solving the global problem.

Botting also has a message for her fellow Lithuanian students.

She says: "I hope that they learn from [our donation] and see what we've done. And if it helps them in any way, maybe they could return the favor. Or maybe not. We just wanted to help them out and hopefully it did something good."

The Chenango student's donation of $365 was immediately matched and nearly doubled by the Open Society Institute, a New York-based private grantmaking foundation funded by Hungarian-born American financier George Soros.

The funding for the project was then completed with a private donation from Ron Blum, an American whose grandparents came from Lithuania.

Hunt of the Virtual Foundation says the Siauliai project is now underway.