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The Real Future of Clean Water

   /   Mar 7th, 2014Health, New York Times Fixes Column, Opinion

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What would it take to ensure that everyone in the world had access to clean water? I’m prompted to ask this question in response to a recent New York Times Magazine article, which focused on Charity: Water, an organization that has reportedly raised $100 million to finance water projects in the developing world, making it the largest water-focused nonprofit in the United States.

Charity: Water has done an important job raising public awareness about the world’s water crisis and demonstrated remarkable fundraising ability — engaging both “micro-philanthropists” and wealthy entrepreneurs. The organization’s fundraising is guided by the imperative of giving its donors a satisfying experience. However, to do this, Charity: Water has had to simplify the problem and narrow in on one piece of the solution — the piece with the most potential to deliver that experience: individualized water projects, like wells or purification systems, that can be photographed, located on Google Maps, and commemorated with plaques featuring donors’ names. To get the work done, the organization identifies partner organizations across the developing world with track records of delivering results, and provides flexible funding to meet local needs.

Charity: Water aims to show through the growth of its philanthropic work that the world’s water crisis is solvable. The message it effectively conveys is: if enough affluent people in the West were generous enough to pay for water projects in poor countries, we could fix the problem. This message is misleading — and it doesn’t serve the interests of the organization’s donors, other water organizations, or people who are beyond the reach of Charity: Water.

Let’s put this problem in perspective. The World Health Organization has estimated that it would require investments totaling $535 billion between 2011 and 2015 to provide universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This problem cannot be solved by scaling philanthropy. It’s like using an “adopt-a-highway” approach to solve the world’s transportation problems. To fix this problem, governments and businesses must take the lead.

Philanthropists have a vital role to play in the solution, just as they have played key roles advancing many movements — from abolition to women’s suffrage to gay rights. But when the problem is vast and grant resources are relatively scarce, philanthropy needs to be used catalytically. By promising its donors a good experience — short-term results and heart-warming photos — Charity: Water limits the range of activities it can support.

One person who has thought long and hard about what it would take to make a dent in the world’s water crisis is Gary White, a co-founder with Matt Damon of Water.org. White has spent the past 30 years addressing this problem and he has gone through a personal learning process that mirrors the world’s learning process. It’s an instructive story.

White is the quintessential Midwestern problem solver: public minded, modest and earnest. In the 1980s, when he was a 20-year-old student, he traveled to Guatemala, where he first encountered children playing next to refuse piles and drinking from ponds and streams contaminated with waste. White found himself overwhelmed speaking with parents who had lost young children as a result of water-borne illnesses.

As a budding engineer, he thought he knew the solution: dig wells. He reasoned that no job in the world could be as important.  “I knew then that my life was going to be about water,” he recalled. “It’s one of those things I never doubted.”

In university, he traveled to the Philippines and designed a water catchment system for a village. He wrote his thesis about it. He could see his career unfolding. He would travel the world helping villagers get clean water. He pictured himself surrounded by smiling children and appreciative parents.

The myth of the white knight riding in to save the day has long dominated children’s literature and development work, and White was not immune to the story line. He even enrolled in flight school, thinking that, as a pilot, he’d be able to visit more villages.

After graduating, he joined the Catholic Relief Services to oversee water and sanitation programs for Latin America. He set out traveling around the region to inspect projects, and was sobered by the reality. Again and again, he came across the same scene: wells broken and abandoned. When he tested the functioning ones he found that, in many cases, the water was more contaminated than the river or pond water the villagers had been advised to avoid.

His and others’ research indicated that half of all water and sanitation projects in the developing world at the time were failures.

Why? First, during the 1960s and 1970s, compassionate young people, inspired by the Peace Corps and President Kennedy’s  call to service, went abroad to fix the world. They were strong on idealism, but weak on practical skills. They made lots of mistakes.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, people had gotten smarter: they saw that development was not for amateurs, but for people who knew how to build wells and roads, run hospitals and agriculture projects. Around the world, the experts got to work; many launched new nongovernmental organizations. But they ran into an array of new problems: How do you change behavior? How do you ensure sustainability? How do you deal with corrupt or incompetent governments?

White saw patterns. For example, if a well is installed in a village but locals lacked a sense of pride or ownership for it, it would eventually break down and fall out of use. Similarly, if locals lacked the organizational skills, knowledge, or funds, to maintain the pump, or if there was no reliable supply chain for parts or tools, or if locals had insufficient appreciation for the importance of hygiene, water would stop flowing. In urban areas, he saw that the main thing that many residents needed was money to purchase a water connection or a pit latrine (something that was especially desired by women — for dignity, comfort and safety concerns).

As White discovered, and as my colleague Tina Rosenberg has reported in this column, these aspects of the work were often overlooked — and as a consequence the world is now littered with billions of dollars worth of broken wells and pumps. Many of them functioned for less than two years.

White studied the failures. He kept a journal and took photographs. He forced his colleagues to sit through slide shows to learn from the mistakes. Gradually, a new set of realizations set in. In 1990, he founded an organization, WaterPartners (which merged with H2O Africa in 2009 to become Water.org), to implement his ideas. He saw that villagers had to take charge of their own development, so his teams worked to help them organize water and sanitation committees; he saw that water and sanitation had to be addressed together; and he saw that sustainability had to be a primary consideration at the outset, not an add-on.

After almost two decades and considerable success, he remained frustrated, however: he reasoned that using a traditional charitable approach, it would take generations to address the world’s water needs. True, every little bit helped. But perhaps there was a better way.

In the past few years, White has developed a model he thinks could reach hundreds of millions of people. The idea is to take advantage of a historically new global opportunity: the explosion of microfinance. He and his colleagues have pioneered WaterCredit, a program that uses philanthropy to jump start a market among microfinance organizations so they get into the business of making water and sanitation loans.

What they have found is that, with reasonably priced loans, many households and communities in the developing world can install water connections, build latrines and wells, and tap into continuing capital sources to maintain them. Many communities will need government subsidies, as well; but microloans can often incite changes far more quickly than waiting for governments or charities to arrive.

WaterCredit is still a young idea. Water.org has invested $7.4 million in 30 microfinance organizations to date; they, in turn, have extended 150,500 loans totaling $28 million for water access and sanitation. So far, 840,000 people have benefited, 92 percent of the loans have gone to women, and the repayment rate is 98 percent. What’s significant about this approach is its leverage and systemic attack. There are thousands of microfinance organizations globally and the field is growing each year; they have the ability to tap into capital markets, and reach more than 200 million families. The world is just discovering how this platform could be deployed.

There are other models that warrant attention, as well. Groups that help local or national governments expand and improve public systems are often tough to market to donors, but they can have big impact. And where governments are cash strapped or unresponsive, social businesses are filling the gap, often more sustainably than charities. For instance, Water Health International installs low-cost but effective water treatment systems in rural areas in South Asia and Africa and has provided access to safe water to 5 million people, who pay modest fees. Another company, Sanergy, is developing a franchising business for low-cost sanitation centers in slums in Nairobi, Kenya. In both cases, the villagers or slum dwellers are not beneficiaries, but customers.

Companies like these seek profits not by bypassing the poor or raising prices, as some water privatization schemes have done, but by developing affordable services to serve them on an ongoing basis. “There’s a need not only for more funding for the water issue, but also for continued innovation,” explains Yasmina Zaidman, director of communications and strategic partnerships for Acumen, a nonprofit venture capital fund that has invested in both companies. “Market-based approaches alone are not the answer — and have sometimes been part of the problem. But there is a role for socially minded businesses and social investment in building solutions that scale.”

When an organization like Charity: Water takes off, as it has, with all the buzz and fanfare, it’s important to take a measured view. While it may be exciting to ponder how much money the tech mogul will give you when his company goes public, it’s more useful to ask: How will you avoid the project-sustainability problems that have plagued others over the past 40 years? How would you decide if there were better ways to direct your money? And: If you should decide to shift your approach, how will you bring your donors along — so they become better educated about the problem as they mature with you?

Photo courtesy of Sacca (Flickr).

2 Responses

  1. Dear Mr. White,
    I am impressed by your story from water to water credit through loans to individual small holder farmers belonging to local owned savings & Credit cooperative Societies.
    I work for Kenya agrovet & human Health Co-operative Society ltd.
    A small holder farmer cooperative society . Our core business is tackling hunger among our small holder farmers and food security.
    After reading your article , it has downed upon us that provision of water[rainwater harvesting] to the small holder farmers can be achieved through micro finance loans to the farmers, and the same micro finance can provide the farmers with cash to access food from shops.
    Your linkage of provision of water, though micro finance has provided the missing link in our plans.
    We shall get in touch with you officially ,within the next few days.

    Best regards,

    Charles Mutula,
    Cell:+254 726 948 360

  2. It is very useful when we read in the media like this. Whenever any time to access and will not miss the news. Let diligently reading let me add to our knowledge