There is nothing more fundamental to life on Earth than water. We humans use it for everything – to cook our food, clean our things and ourselves and, most importantly, to drink. Yet, for many people around the world, water doesn’t sustain life, it takes it away.
More than 700 million people lack access to clean drinking water around the world. Three-and-a-half times that number don’t have access to a modern, safe sanitation system. This has profound effects on the health of people, communities and countries. Every year, more than 800,000 children die from diarrhea caused by dirty drinking water. Millions of people suffer from waterborne ‘neglected tropical diseases’, so-named because these widespread maladies receive little attention, funding or research due to their concentration in the developing world. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that providing safe, clean water and sanitation could single-handedly prevent more than six percent of all deaths.
Given the immense potential gains and the severe consequences for inaction, it’s no wonder that there are a host of organisations that work to make clean water access universal.
Over the years, we’ve learned that providing clean water is not a situation that can be solved with a silver bullet. While technology, devices, well-digging and more are critical to the solution, they are not the solution. Some of the best organisations recognise that these technical aspects need to be married with people and the communities that use them to create a sustainable solution.
Here are a few organisations worth supporting:
You may have heard about Water.org thanks to Matt Damon being a co-founder, but under the celebrity glitz, the organisation has a solid approach centered on community engagement. When Water.org’s non-Matt Damon co-founder started his career, he bought into a model that suggested all you had to do was give people clean water technology and systems and you’ve solved the problem. He learned that you can’t solve a community’s problem without the community’s involvement. Water.org’s approach boils down to that old “teach a man to fish” proverb. It works with communities to build a locally appropriate solution and builds local expertise to design, build and maintain projects.
It’s also willing to experiment with new initiatives like WaterCredit, which uses the popular microfinance model to fund clean water projects and the New Ventures Fund that supports innovative pilot projects.
WaterAid is a giant in the clean water field. It is based in the United Kingdom but has fundraising offices around the world. It works in 27 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific Region. WaterAid takes a holistic approach to the problem, taking on physical projects and advocacy work and engaging with people at the individual, community and governmental level.
What I find most inspiring is the organisations’ understanding of the social issues underlying and contributing to the lack of clean water. While its CEO has acknowledged that advocating for basic services is relatively uncontroversial, WaterAid sees water access as part of the broader war on global poverty and how that affects people differently based on their race, ability, gender and more. This informs their service delivery and advocacy to make it more tailored and effective.
Blue Planet Network
You don’t have to actually build facilities on the ground to improve access to clean water. Blue Planet Network is proof. The organisation is a hub for funders, implementers and the public who are working on community water projects. It organises, compiles and disseminates expertise and lessons learned from organisations on the ground and shares best practices in implementation and monitoring across its whole network.
Blue Planet Network’s collection of more than 100 organisations can learn and borrow from each other so that, rather than reinventing the wheel, they can adapt it to meet their local community’s needs. Its easy and cost-effective monitoring tool ensures that each member organisation’s project can become a lesson for others.
Water for People
The challenges with just focusing on technology-based solutions are not around initial installation, but problems of longevity. Water for People’s approach is specifically designed to avoid that challenge. Its motto is “Everyone Forever.” They mean it, especially the forever part. Water for People monitors their projects for 10 years after initial implementation to make sure that the projects they put in place continue to work for the community. Like other organisations above, they stress the importance of community buy-in and ownership of the project as a critical part of making a system sustainable over time.
According to their CEO, it’s about focusing on “outcomes not inputs.” Water for People measures their success based on the sustainability of the system rather than people served. That means looking at a community’s ability to use, repair and maintain a clean water system rather than simply counting the number of projects constructed. This helps ensure that rather than swooping in and out, leaving some questionable infrastructure behind, they’re actually making community change through sustained efforts and local empowerment.
Joe Baker is the Vice President of Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts and all editorial content. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.
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