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Finally, the world's drinking glass is more than half full

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Maria Iglesias of San Antonio, Honduras, used to leave her home at 6 a.m. on summer days, trek to the nearest water basin, and do essential chores there until finally arriving back home around 4 p.m. But now, she spends her days at home immersed in labors of love, thanks to a life-changing development. At least a few days per week, she has running water.

"I have time now to help my children with their school work," Mrs. Iglesias said in a letter last year to WaterPartners International, an American nonprofit group that helped bring water to her village. "I can do dishes and laundry right here at my home. I don't have to walk to the 'pozo' [old water source]. This is a dream come true for me."

Across the developing world, some 700 million people have gained a household connection to drinking water since 1990 - and helped the world reach a crucial tipping point. Now for the first time, more than half the globe's people have drinking water piped into their homes, according to an August report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

Such progress, along with the spread of sanitation systems, has reduced hygiene-related illnesses, pushed more students into schoolrooms, and begun to break the cycle of urban poverty by making water much less expensive.

Yet for millions of women like Iglesias, the most immediate and surprising benefit of the new water systems is the gift of time.

"When we ask women how water projects have changed their lives, their first answer is always, 'We have more time with our kids,' " says Marla Smith-Nilson, cofounder of WaterPartners International, which has projects in Central America, Africa, and Asia. "We're focused on sanitation and health, but we're always hearing stories of how lifestyle has improved."

In rural regions of developing nations, the task of collecting water falls almost entirely to women. In Honduran mountains and the African countryside alike, women normally get the job of hiking to the nearest water source, washing whatever needs washing there, and returning, often under the weight of wet laundry, clean dishes, and full canisters. In Tanzania, to walk four to six miles each way is not uncommon, while in Ethiopia a 10-mile trek can easily consume six hours per day.

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