Most Deseret News readers don't think a great deal about water. They can generally expect a nearby tap to provide an abundant and inexpensive supply of clean, drinkable water.
For more than a billion of the Earth's inhabitants, however, there is no guarantee of access to safe drinking water, and for more than 2 billion there is no access to basic sanitation.
The suffering that results from this untenable situation is enormous. According to a United Nations Task Force on Water and Sanitation, nearly half the population of the developing world suffers at any given moment from diarrhea and/or parasitic illnesses — illnesses that most often result from drinking unsanitary water or from lack of water for personal hygiene.
The impact of these illnesses falls disproportionately on the young. For example, diarrheal illnesses account for roughly 1 in 5 deaths among children under age 5.
The burden of this concern falls disproportionately on women. By one estimate, on any given day, women around the world spend 220 million work hours collecting drinking water for their families. According to water.org, a nonprofit dedicated to providing drinking water and sanitation in Africa and South Asia, 220 million work hours is "greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees at Walmart, United Parcel Service, McDonald's, IBM, Target, and Kroger."
And the lack of access to safe and affordable domestic water and sanitation is only one facet of the global water challenge, as those affected also often lack water for productive agriculture.
Among those without access to proper drinking water and sanitation, 4 out of 5 live in rural areas. This complicates possible technical fixes through large networked water systems.
Over the years, sincere efforts to redress the world's serious water problems through foreign aid have had questionable results. Large top-down water projects planned and executed by foreigners without corresponding consultation or education with the beneficiaries have fallen into disuse and disrepair.
Initiatives by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to harness foreign investment for the expansion of sanitary water by encouraging private development of waterworks have produced unintended consequences and met with stiff ideological resistance.
What seems to be delivering decent and sustainable results for improved access to water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation, however, is a bottom-up approach to development that engages local communities in identifying, adopting, implementing, owning and managing low-cost, small-scale improvements in water supply.
This bottom-up approach — described in today's Deseret News in Jesse Hyde's vivid account of humanitarian efforts currently under way in drought-stricken Ethiopia — is not an easy fix. It requires effective partnership with local communities based on uncommon trust and understanding. It requires long-term commitment to education.
Aid organizations inclined to these bottom-up approaches have to recognize that some technologies will not be suitable because of local conditions or culture. And they also need to recognize that in some localities, because of war and other massive social disruption, there may simply not be enough trust and social capital in place to implement community-based solutions.2 comments on this story
But where there is local demand for and engagement with this user-driven, community-based approach, the results have been powerful and permanent. And the improvement in the dignity and well-being of the poorest of the poor has been significant and transformative.
Addressing the humanitarian needs of the world is a daunting proposition, but it somehow seems scalable and doable once we learn that lasting solutions will come through simple techniques that can engage the willing hearts, minds and hands of one community at a time. We commend those who are engaged in such ennobling activities around the globe and urge our well-hydrated readers to consider how they might identify and support these effective humanitarian programs.