Thoughts from Engineers: More than a Pump and a Toilet: Communities Worldwide Need Critical Water Supply and Sanitation Systems
A day rarely goes by in the United States without some news about drinking water and the physical, social and administrative systems needed to deliver it. We hear about lead contamination in Newark, N.J., Flint, Mich., and other cities. We hear about water mains that break annually as a result of age, weather or neglect. We hear about the substantial investment needed to fix the many problems that inevitably surface.
In short, the delivery of drinkable water and the removal of wastewater are not simple undertakings. They never were. But some 100 years after the basic systems first were established in cities around the United States, it’s easy to underestimate the many pieces—raw infrastructure, costs to build and maintain, technicians, business owners and vested government agencies—needed to make these systems work.
Considering what’s involved in the United States, we can’t presume any less is required in other parts of the world. A pump with no maintenance program nor network of trained technicians to guarantee its long-term operability is sure to break down. From experts who repair and maintain parts of the built infrastructure to business owners who dispose of waste to an enforceable system of laws and service fees, more is involved than meets the eye.
A piecemeal approach to providing clean water, education and training often has been the approach of global water charities. However, the organizational motto of Water for People, “Everyone Forever,” captures the nonprofit’s commitment to put tailored systems in place that are likely to remain intact and viable through time. As the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and access to clean water becomes critically important, there’s value in studying global strategies that work.
Tweaking the Charitable Water Model
Water for People started in the 1980s within the American Water Works Association (AWWA), a national leader in water education, research and management. At the onset, Water for People’s mission was not unlike similar organizations that sought to make a difference in the global water sector. The group’s goal was to effect change quickly by addressing glaring problems related to poor sanitation or inadequate numbers of working toilets or pumps. The problem with this approach is that after specific types of assistance are offered, volunteers often move on.
In the absence of resident technicians, local leadership and political will, physical improvements inevitably broke down, and any early momentum to change the status quo disappeared along with it. Water for People began to experiment with a tailored approach that formed partnerships with local government, the private sector, schools and other agents in the community to help build the necessary physical infrastructure, set up water and sanitation offices, create supply chains, and foster financial independence and long-term sustainability.
Establishing Workable and Enduring Systems
At a conference in 2019, I had the pleasure of listening to Eleanor Allen, a professional environmental engineer who worked for CH2M Hill (now Jacobs) earlier in her career and currently works as CEO for Water for People. She talked at length about the nonprofit’s success and its goal to replicate their proven approach in many more districts throughout the world, ultimately scaling the model to reach 80 million people and provide every school, health clinic, business and family with sustainable water and sanitation service. This is an ambitious goal, but Water for People’s work to date has reached 4 million people and advanced self-sufficient, sustainable systems in nine countries: five countries in South America as well as Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and India.
According to Ms. Allen, building the physical components—pipes, wells and toilets—is the easy part; changing a community’s mindset and behavior often is the most challenging aspect. Open defecation in public spaces, which contaminates wells and streams used for drinking water, is common. Women walking miles to locate water and children (mainly girls) missing collectively millions of hours of school every year to assist with these duties also are common. Such time can be used more effectively to get an education, earn an income or simply enjoy good health free of illness after reliable water supply and sanitation practices are in place. This message, when realized, represents a significant breakthrough for a community.
When local leaders understand the connection between clean water, good sanitation and a better quality of life, the opportunity for change opens. Water for People’s model is the result of a deliberate and methodical strategy to educate, gain trust and form lasting partnerships with government agencies, schools, local businesses and other stakeholders. The secret to the group’s success: community and government buy-in from the very beginning.
A Self-Sufficient Water Utility in a South American Village
To effect lasting change, Water for People maintains that local governments need to take ownership and commit to supporting sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services. Each participating government is required to provide 35 percent of funding for the project. This upfront investment functions as a guarantee from partnering agencies and gets the program’s important components up and running, including the institutional and organizational framework, physical infrastructure, and training programs for technicians and business owners.
Water for People stays involved to make sure key elements are in place: protocols for collecting key baseline data, skilled mechanics, service operators and vendors, and the funds to keep it all moving forward. After specific milestones have been reached, Water for People continues to monitor the program for several years to ensure the district’s processes can run independently of outside support.
Developed in partnership with local and national agencies, Water for People has reached 4 million people with sustainable systems of water delivery and waste removal. This leaves roughly 2.1 billion people without drinkable water and 4.2 billion without access to a working toilet. The World Health Organization claims 896 million people visit healthcare facilities that have no access to water service.
These statistics are alarming given the risk COVID-19 presents to communities across the globe, now in greater danger as a result of little or no access to clean water and good hygiene. Water for People’s model puts in place sustainable water infrastructure and guarantees a basic human right, and the organization’s efforts bring into sharp relief a community’s chances of surviving or succumbing to this global health crisis.