Clean water is about more than just digging wells

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Across the globe, governments, charitable organizations and others are tirelessly toiling to bring clean water to the developing world. And their efforts are paying off.


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He was too young, too inexperienced. There was no way, people said, Constantino Lopez could bring clean water to every single one of the 5,800 Hondurans living in the 15 towns and villages he oversaw as mayor.

But Lopez was unfazed, and within just five years, with the help of the Colorado-based nonprofit Water For People, the now-32-year-old political newcomer had upped the percentage of people who had consistent access to clean water in the Honduran municipality of Chinda from 7 percent to 100 percent. Now, the very same politicians who mocked him are coming to him for advice.

Across the globe, governments, charitable organizations and people like Lopez are tirelessly toiling to bring clean water to the developing world. And their efforts are paying off. This year, the world met the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the percentage of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

Still, 780 million people don’t have access to clean water, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. And that, experts say, is being optimistic. Officials measure progress toward the Millennium Development Goals by charting infrastructure, but, according to the International Campaign for Justice, more than half of the water systems built in the developing world aren’t in working order.

Water troubles

In Chinda, getting water to the people wasn’t a matter of digging wells and putting in pipes. Chinda had all that. If one were to look at the infrastructure alone, 91 percent of Lopez's people had access to water. But considering water quality, daily access and adequate quantities to fulfill family needs, the statistics told a different story. Less than 10 percent of people in Chinda had their water needs taken care of.

Though progress varies by region, this is a common scenario in the developing world, said Jamie Skinner, West Africa coordinator of the the Global Water Initiative. On average, 90 percent of people living in Latin America, the Carribbean and Northern Africa have water infrastructure in place, according to UNICEF. But Sub-Saharan Africa, where Skinner works, lags behind with just 61 percent coverage.

Overall, by 2015, UNICEF estimates there will be enough wells in place to bring clean water to 92 percent of the world's population.

"We have met the goals as they are currently expressed," Skinner said. "We are definitely making progress."

But, he argues, "we are measuring the wrong things."

For decades, the international aid community has focused its resources on building wells to bring clean water to the people, but, it is becoming apparent that infrastructure alone is not enough, Skinner said. Too often, nonprofits install a well and leave. Then five or 10 years later, a part breaks and the community cannot afford to fix it. As a result, in Africa alone, the International Institute for Environment and Development estimates 50,000 wells aren't in working order. Recent surveys in Western African Republic of Mali found 80 percent of wells are dysfunctional. In northern Ghana, 58 percent need repair.

Even in those areas where there are working wells, many people still aren't drinking clean water, Skinner said. Sometimes clean water from a well, though bacteria free, doesn't look so clean. People don't understand why they should pay for water when they can get it for free from the river.

"We take an engineering approach and we build a borehole or a well," Skinner said. "It's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't solve the problem. There is a behavioral dimension we're not addressing."

Drinking water for all

Moving past infrastructure in Chinda required the help of Water For People, the town hall and the community, said Lopez in a video interview from Honduras. It wasn't easy.

"We did it, thanks to God," he said.

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