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. (Shutterstock.com) 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. (Shutterstock.com)

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.

Though Water For People, which works in 10 countries in addition to Honduras, supplied building materials and instructional support, the goal Lopez had was to take the future of his municipality out of the hands of the nonprofit and give it to the community.

Lopez formed a local water committee, headed by a municipality-paid staff member, to oversee the maintenance and administration of the water infrastructure. Water For People trained local people as technicians to perform maintenance. To fund upkeep, Lopez started collecting a tariff to fund maintenance and repairs.

Water For People footed the majority of the $582,148 project bill, but the municipality of Chinda contributed 8 percent of the cost. As time rolled by, Water For People gradually stepped out until, by 2011, Chinda was supplying the majority of the necessary resources.

The approach reflects a recent shift in attitude among aid organizations. In 2010, a group of nonprofits that specialize in water issues organized the first of what would become an annual conference to discuss ways to improve failing water projects. In 2011, 50 organizations worked together to draft the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education Sustainability Charter.

The charter recognizes that there are still "enormous systematic challenges to providing sustainable safe water" and that "many of those who may have benefitted in the short-term ... now have systems that are not working adequately, or have failed completely." It calls on nonprofits to view water systems in the developing world "as a service, not as a project."

"We can see the mistakes we've been making and we're trying to look at things a different way," said John Sauer, director of thought leadership at Water For People.

In an attempt to focus on sustainability, Water For People recently penned the new "Everyone, Forever" motto.

"From the very beginning we are focusing on issues of financing in the community and finding resources to support ongoing maintenance as the system gets older," he said. "We recognize that they will have to replace or repair their pump and we help prepare them."

All villages and hamlets in Chinda now have a functional, gravity-fed piped water system with household connections, according to an independent study by the IRC Water and Sanitation Centre. But the work is far from done.

Chinda's tariffs only cover 15 percent of the depreciation costs, according to the report. While raising taxes might help, it would be difficult to close the gap.

But Lopez remains confident in his community.

"We started from zero just a few years ago," he said. "Now the communities know their role and are capable of being self sufficient."

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