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Water For People: Innovative Solutions for Global Water Scarcity

By Ned Breslin

Millions of dollars are wasted every year on thousands of water projects around the world that break, become abandoned and prove to be unsustainable. And, every day women and children in developing countries are cruelly reminded of the short-lived hope of clean water when they pass by broken hand pumps or capped wells in their villages, forcing them to again rely on contaminated water sources.

Last week, I advocated for new and innovative water and sanitation reforms while participating in a water scarcity panel at the Skoll Forum in Oxford, UK. As the CEO of Water For People, I was part of an exciting panel discussion on immediate and long-term solutions to global water scarcity.

Water For People is convinced that organizations working to ease water insecurity have to change the status quo and invest in innovative solutions that involve the full trust, participation, leadership, and empowerment of local community members.  Water For People has seen this approach successfully begin to solve the water crisis throughout districts around the world. Financing That Capitalizes on Local Businesses

New approaches to financing water supply and sanitation are needed.  Gone are the days of 100 percent grants, where communities are seen as passive beneficiaries of fully financed development solutions.  Full grants absolve communities and governments of their financial obligations and undermine all efforts to get people to pay for services over time – payment that is essential if water investments are to last.  Our experience is that communities are willing and able to financially contribute to their development solutions, and that local government can and must contribute as well. 

Using external finances as leverage, as part of a broader mix of local financing, helps stretch philanthropic finances further while indicating from the beginning that investments in water and sanitation will only be sustained if finances keep being allocated towards project upkeep.  We are also seeing that there is a business case to be made from water and sanitation service provision – where local businesses can succeed and expand their work if water flows. 

Water For People is successfully scaling its “Sanitation as a Business” model, which fosters sustainable, profitable sanitation services that are offered by small local, entrepreneurial companies, generating valuable income for impoverished households and schools. Through similar models, we can identify ways for the private sector to generate income by developing business relations with households through water and sanitation services.  This financing alternative allows organizations to produce truly scalable models, creating solutions that build capacity, reach everyone in a community, no matter how remote they are, and provide long-lasting successes to ease people out of water poverty.

Transformative Local Partnerships: Key for Long-term Impacts

Partnerships with government and the local private sector are a vital foundation for our work, with each delivering unique skills and resources required to deliver tangible impact.  Water For People works with local organizations, the government, private sector, and individual communities to develop valuable, personalized strategies that deliver quality water and sanitation to communities for generations. These collaborations consistently open us to new ideas and opportunities, enabling us to strengthen and amplify the reach of our programs.

Responsible Investments: Monitoring to Make Sure Systems are Working

Responsible development means moving away from a focus on the construction of hardware (like a tap, a handpump or a latrine) and then counting how many people benefit from that initial investment, to understanding that sustaining that investment will take time and effort long after the first drop of clean water is produced in the new system.  We must prove over time that water is still flowing or the initial enthusiasm for a new water system will fade as people return to polluted rivers and streams to collect water once again. Water For People knows that ongoing monitoring and program evaluation are critical for sustainable programs. Transparent monitoring allows us and other organizations to build on our successes and address our weaknesses – just as any good business does. Water For People launched an online platform called Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), that relies on mobile phones and GPS to monitor how well water systems in the developing world are functioning. FLOW enables Water For People to better evaluate its work, see which projects are working and which need repairs, while sharing the results and our responses with everyone around the world. This technology allows us to be fully transparent and accountable for our work.  This technology is a powerful tool that allows us to constantly modify our programming to address inevitable challenges that will emerge.  To truly say that our work is sustainable, we must be able to demonstrate that our support results in flowing water, all the time, not just when the cameras are present.



Ned Breslin is the CEO of Water For People

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