UNICEF’s Dirty Water Vending Machines Raises Awareness in Manhattan

The numbers are staggering.  About 2 billion people lack access to clean water.  Over 4000 children die daily due to water-borne disease.  And the pundits predict that the situation will only become more desperate for children during the 21st century.  The problems resulting from unclean water are numerous, yet the solutions are relatively simple, and the costs, at least to Westerners, are low.

UNICEF decided to confront the issue by confronting New Yorkers head on.  Last Friday, the United Nations agency installed a vending machine in Manhattan’s Union Square in raising awareness about the issue.  Pedestrians who passed through 14th Street and Park Avenue were confronted with a vividly colored machine that offered bottles of dirty water in several varieties, including typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and dengue.

I suppose this campaign gives new meaning to the term, “Choose your poison.”

The eight diseases offered in the machines are amongst the most common ailments that kill children and adults throughout the world, and could easily be avoided through safe, clean water.

UNICEF hoped to gain publicity about the issue of potable water by asking for US$1 donations, which the agency claimed would be enough to provide a child safe cleaning water for 40 days.  The machine also displayed a mobile number to which people could text a donation to help the effort.

At a time when donations to non-profits and charities are shrinking, while consumers are inundated with requests both large and small from organizations that want to do good, the UNICEF campaign certainly is an innovative attempt to educate more fortunate people about the devastating effects resulting from the lack of access to clean water.

Whether or not the water was really “dirty” or contained those pathogens is not the point—sometimes jarring the apathetic is the best way to go. This strategy has been employed for at least 20 years by charities like Feed the Children with its commercials featuring Sally Struthers and a gaggle of starving children (which South Park viciously mocked). This strategy is employed because it’s effective. A visual display of the problem is the next best thing to actually be taken to a different continent.

UNICEF’s  produced a promotional video about their NYC dirty water campaign.  Some of you may question the contrived drama evident throughout this public service announcement; others may be turned off by the vapid response at the very end, where a couple tourists say some obnoxious comments in the context of, “Oh my god, will I get a tapeworm and lose weight or whatever . . . ?”

Watch for yourself and share your reaction.  UNICEF hopes to expand the campaign to other US cities:  how Americans in various cities would react merits a follow-up posting in a few months.

Is collecting donations the way to go, or does social entrepreneurship, which more often than not leads to the empowerment of folks, be a more effective way to go?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.