The lack of safe water is one of the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges, and could worsen as the globe’s growing population confronts the increase in water scarcity. While countless NGOs have attempted to boost access to safe water, those good intentions have not always led to long-term successful results. Several reasons lie behind these failures: no long-term planning, the lack of local capacity building, no sense of local ownership and little attention paid to sustainability related issues.
But the days of simply digging a well, walking away and hoping that the community will manage this new resource with zero training are changing. One organization transforming the approach towards improving access to water, the world’s most precious and threatened resource, is Safe Water Network. Co-founded by the late Paul Newman just six years ago, Safe Water Network takes a market-based and solution-agnostic approach that has paid off well: at least 250,000 citizens in Ghana, Kenya and India now have reliable sources of safe and drinkable water, and that total could double by 2015. In an interview last month with Safe Water Network’s Amanda Gimble, I learned how the organization’s partnership with some of the world’s largest companies has made a difference in some of the world’s most water stressed communities. Those firms include a pharmaceutical company, an information technology firm and a giant beverage and snacks multinational.
“You need to run water as a business,” Gimble said during our talk. And business, of course, runs on data. To that end, since last year Safe Water Network has partnered with Merck to address the cultural, operational, economic and environmental challenges to safe water access in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. Just because a community may have a facility or infrastructure offering clean and safe water does not mean everyone in the community is aware, or using, that safe source. So Merck provides Safe Water Network full-time “Fellows” who have an expertise in health impact assessment, demand generation and market research.
The team is currently studying patterns in as many as a dozen sites to optimize operational efficiencies that, in turn, will increase safe water access to as many as 50,000 more people. Whether improvements must be made at local water stations, hygiene education programs need a boost or more outreach to local educators and doctors is necessary, Merck and Safe Water Network rely on data. The numbers can lead to a more viable solution, from finding the most cost-effective ways to boost usage of clean water to reducing microbial contamination that too often causes diarrhea, and death, in young children.
PepsiCo is another company with which Safe Water Network works. The beverage and snack giant provides a team of employee volunteers, or “PepsiCorps,” who offer quality assurance, site assessments and distribution best practices to local communities. Whether a community requires water kiosks, a local piped water system or a network of water vendors, PepsiCo employees provide the technical assistance that, in turn, offers synergy with Safe Water Network’s local expertise.
Tying these programs together is an IBM business analytics platform that offers real-time reporting and analysis of Safe Water Network’s field programs. Soon to launch in India, the platform slices and dices data related to consumer purchases, water deliveries and operational and financial data. With its potential to scale to hundreds of water stations and kiosks, Safe Water Network can respond immediately when technical assistance is required at one of the organization’s projects. The first phase of this program will roll out before the end of this year, and later in Ghana.
By leveraging its partners’ strengths in logistics, operations and marketing, Safe Water Network can develop initiatives within the countries in which it operates to find the most flexible, cost-effective and seamless option for water access in local communities. The result has been improved health and economic opportunities in small towns and villages across Ghana, Kenya and India; a pricing of water 50 percent lower than other alternatives to provide fair and affordable access; and a decrease in water borne diseases that have an adverse affect on health and local economies.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon on Twitter.
Image courtesy Safe Water Network.