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How are We Going to Solve the Water (and Sanitation) Crisis?

Matthew Savage | Thursday November 19th, 2009 | 0 Comments

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Here’s the deal. 1 billion people lack access to clean water. 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. Every year 3 to 5 million people die from water-related diseases.

Water will surely be the biggest issue of our time, globally. So, what are the strategies being used to bring clean water and sanitation to the poor? I attended some water-related sessions at the 2009 Net Impact Conference last weekend, investigating what some organizations are doing in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Three of the main themes that I identified were: empowerment, ownership and self-reliance. Bringing clean water solutions to the developing world requires systems that help empower the local communities – helping mobilize the women and creating entrepreneurs – as well as creating a solution that communities feel they own; solutions must fit into the culture. Self-reliance refers to the fact that NGO’s historically have brought solutions to communities without a long-term plan in place for maintenance and within 3 to 5 years the systems are in disrepair or abandoned.

For Profit?

The Water Initiative, a private company that brings Point-of-Use water filtration technology to homes in developing countries, is proudly for-profit. Kevin McGovern, founder and chairman, strives for “sustainable” margins, making the business not only more viable, but also ensuring that the services that they provide will be well maintained for the long run.

The company is piloting their project in Mexico, focused on direct selling their filtration devices to households in urban areas. According to McGovern, 80% of their salespeople are women, whose skills they develop over time. The in home device and water service, including installation and annual replacement of filters, is provided by The Water Initiative thru its distributors who receive economic incentives. The cutomer pays a weekly fee to TWI for this service. The price is competitive to customers’ existing water supply (in Mexico, this is often a 50 lb., 20-litre water bottle that a family has to fill about three times a week).

McGovern also highlighted the taste benefits to his technology, which also removes harmful pathogens, arsenic and fluoride; many Mexicans simply dislike the taste of the heavily-chlorinated water. Cheryl Choge, of Global Water Challenge, pointed out that many Point-of-Use systems have been less successful, because they have generally not taken taste and other consumer preferences into account.

Only time will tell if companies like The Water Initiative and WaterHealth International are successful at focusing on this “bottom of the pyramid” approach, profitably. But it’s great that profit models can mean better service if done correctly.

Empowering Women and Communities

Women (and girls) are a focus for many of these organizations for a few reasons. In these countries, women often simply have more time on their hands and also have a traditional role in water collection – sometimes this can take them all day. Hence, many women do not have livelihood opportunities and girls cannot always go to school, putting them at higher risk for violent attacks and rape.

Sustainable development only can be achieved with the full participation of women who constitute approximately 50 per cent of the population. Increasing opportunities for women brings multiple benefits, decreasing gender inequalities, lowering birth rates and providing more jobs.

One of the panelists was also quick to point out that the return-on-investment (ROI) for boys vs. girls is 10:1 – for every hour that you teach a boy something versus a girl, you get ten times more out of it!

A Single Drop is a non-profit that aims to put decision-making back on the communities in the Philippines and India so that they fully buy into and own their systems. Founder and Executive Director, Gemma Bulos, sees one metric of success as the communities taking ownership of the systems that are installed and even taking initiative on new projects – complete self-reliance. Recently, one of the communities self-organized to protect a local spring months after the organization had left; this was seen as a huge success.

Strategic Relationships

So which is better, a top-down or a bottom-up approach? Oftentimes, it requires both. Strategic relationships are often required with national governments and local agencies. McGovern met with both first lady of Mexico and officials at CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water utility, to get buy-in during the early stages of developing his business strategy. His organization then spends several weeks, sometimes months, in the local communities in which they want to conduct business; this allows them to form strategic relationships with key players in the communities, and design an approach that is customized for each region.

Don’t Forget Sanitation!

By the numbers, sanitation is an even bigger problem then clean water. It’s also a logical next step to think about for organizations whose mission is to address clean water issues – once someone has clean water, the next thing they want is a clean toilet.

There are plenty of opportunities for both NGO’s and for-profit companies to help: by 2050, half of the world’s 9 billion people are expected to suffer from severe water shortages. The main takeaway for NGO’s is making sure that they ensure that their work is maintained long-term. The main takeaway for for-profit companies is maintaining an approach that does not exploit the poor.

However, I still can’t help but think about the destitute – how do we get them water in a way that empowers them, when they can’t afford to spend anything? Needless to say, it is extremely challenging.

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You can follow more of my water-related thoughts on Twitter at twitter.com/matthewsavage.


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