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Virginia Tech Sponsored Series

Virginia Tech Series 2014

Investing in Water in Developing Countries: The Right (and Smart) Thing to Do

By 3p Contributor

By Leah Tirpak

Over the years of working in international development, I’ve established a motto: If I can’t appeal to your heart strings, I’ll appeal to your pocket. More often than not, appealing to the pocket is the most effective approach. As a bit of a bleeding heart humanitarian, this can at times be disappointing, especially when one considers the numerous moral reasons to care about water (or lack thereof) in the undeveloped communities. Let these facts marinate in your think muscle ...

  • 750 million people around the world do not have access to clean water.

  • 842,000 people die every year from diarrheal disease caused by unsafe drinking water and lack of appropriate sanitation; that equates to 2,300 people daily. To put this further in perspective, more people are dying from diarrheal disease on a daily basis than the entire student population of my alma mater, Roanoke College.

  • 500,000 of those deaths annually are children under the age of 5. That equates to one child death approximately every minute.

Reader, if those numbers aren’t enough to convince you that this is an area everyone should be altruistically concerned about, and one warranting more global intervention, then let me explain the economic benefits. The return on investment in water is incredibly high. According to U.N. Water, every $1 invested in water and sanitation produces a whopping ROI between $5 and $28.

The World Health Organization put together an enlightening study on the economic costs and benefits of investment in water. Let’s take a look at how the lack of access to clean water is negatively affecting the global economy:

The good news is that if the global community steps up and increases their focus on water (from the stingy 6 percent of overall international aid allocated to water investments in 2011), the economic benefits would be massive. Universal access to clean water means deaths from waterborne illnesses would largely disappear, resulting in an estimated $18.5 billion in economic benefits annually. People would be healthier, which means health care costs would decrease and productivity would increase. This would result in an estimated $32 billion in economic benefits realized annually.

I’m going to take the argument a step further: Overall international development and aid funding would be much more effective and efficient once global access to clean water is achieved. It is my opinion that without access to clean water there is no way for undeveloped countries to pull themselves out of poverty, let alone be able to experience sustainable effects from development programs.

Here’s why: Inadequate access to clean drinking water in childhood leads to diminished brain development and physical stunting. This means that individuals without access to clean water are intrinsically disadvantaged from birth. No amount of education or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality will be able to reverse these biological side effects. However, once a full generation has access to clean water, there will be an overall increase in physical health and mental capacity -- better preparing communities to absorb necessary education and confront other issues such as health, employment, infrastructure, etc.

Beyond the initial investment in water, which as demonstrated above will result in huge economic benefits, every dollar of development funding invested thereafter will be more effective and result in further economic gains.

The bottom line is that the global community has a long way to go in addressing the issue of access to clean water. Whether the motivation is goodwill and morality or a smart investment opportunity matters little to me. What matters most is that serious action is taken now. Every minute wasted is a life (or dollar) lost. Quite literally.

Image credits: Leah Tirpak

Leah is an international development professional and a member of the Virginia Tech Executive Masters of Natural Resource 2016 Cohort. She spends about half of her time travelling throughout Southern Africa working on natural resource and sustainability related issues including water and agriculture.

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