Three-year-old Maria lives in Chinda, a municipality in Honduras. Maria has never had to taste dirty water. This fact may not seem significant, but this is not the case for many other children in Honduras. Chinda is the only municipality in Honduras where every household, every school and every clinic has access to clean water as a result of a five-year effort by Water For People.
Stories like Maria’s are ones that charitable organizations in the water and sanitation sector hope to make more commonplace in a world where nearly 900 million people do not have access to clean water.
Realizing these success stories takes more than providing communities with technological solutions. Bringing sustainable access to clean water also takes social systems where, “Everyone has skin in the game,” stated Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People.
Water For People is a global nonprofit organization that seeks to create a world where all people have access to clean water and sanitation. The organization is currently working on projects in 11 countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Breslin explains what he means by “social systems.”
“We believe that for water and sanitation to be viable over time, it’s not enough to put in a project and train a committee,” Breslin said. “You have to explain to communities and governments the cost of running and repairing the system and make certain that everyone is willing to pitch into this cost.” Social systems ensure long-term viability and maintenance of a new water or sanitation system, thereby preventing water scarcity from reoccurring.
Organizations such as Water For People spend a great deal of time advising all parties to help secure the social structure so that infrastructure maintenance is in place, Breslin said. This part of a project starts well before the infrastructure is built and is monitored well after. “Building the infrastructure is just the beginning for us,” said Breslin. “Our work lasts long after a project is completed.”
Cathy Leslie, Executive Director of Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), notes that the results of success within these communities come from the ability of community leaders and volunteers to see the “big picture.”
“We strive to educate people that it takes a diverse team that looks at the entire approach these communities are taking toward water infrastructure to create solutions that work,” Leslie said. “One of our biggest successes is conveying that involvement must come from everyone – the community, the volunteers, engineers, non-engineers – everyone can help in solving these challenges.”
EWB-USA is an international organization with more than 250 chapters working with communities in 45 countries. It organizes engineers, non-engineers and students across the globe to implement sustainable development projects that improve the quality of life for communities in need.
The World of Water Is Changing
As if trying to coordinate social systems with technological solutions wasn’t enough of a challenge, stress on water resources presents another obstacle for charitable organizations that work to bring water to those without.
WaterAid has found that the way in which water is being managed in an area can put increasing pressure on water resources, making the issue of access more complicated,
according to Tom Slaymaker, WaterAid Senior Policy Officer of Governance. WaterAid is an organization that works to increase access to clean water and sanitation in 26 countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific region.
“Changes in demand for water in agriculture, industry and other economic activities can affect the distribution of water resources,” Slaymaker added. “We maintain a very clear focus on giving priority to the use of water for basic human needs, no matter what else is going on in an area.” Stress on water resources creates the need for creative solutions around water
resource management. Breslin notes, “There’s no way to deny the evidence that water resources are under great stress. And, we need to make sure that the investments made in providing clean water access are flexible and will thrive with the changes over time.”
Access Gives People Options
Charitable organizations in the water and sanitation sector have proven that when people do have access to clean water, a whole new world of possibilities is open to them. People without enough clean water or good sanitation are limited in their potential to be productive, because they spend the majority of their time obtaining water, or they are ill, Leslie explains.
Once access is provided, people have the capacity to do other things, such as focusing on education, farming the land or expanding their small businesses. “I think access to clean water and sanitation are the imperative for people to begin to get out of poverty,” Leslie adds. And though progress has been made, water access is still uneven, leaving some parts of the world – particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia – far behind.
Studies show a significant correlation between lack of water access and lost gross domestic product. “It’s interesting that when governments start to see those kinds of studies, they start listening and wanting to make changes,” Slaymaker said. “Getting the attention of governments and raising awareness comprises a big part of what we do.”
Maybe most importantly, access to clean water gives people control over their lives, says Breslin, and is fundamental in giving people options. “I have no idea what options they are
going to take. People see their opportunities in different ways,” Breslin adds. “But, if we unleash that and become involved in a process that says you don’t have to be fetching water all day, what you’ll find is that people are doing really creative things.”
This article has been republished with permission by Black & Veatch. To view the original article, visit Black & Veatch’s Solutions Magazine.