World Water Week- Access to Safe Water: Takeaways from Stockholm

Thomas Schueneman

In 2010 the United Nations passed resolution 64/292 mandating the basic human right to water and sanitation.

Access to water and sanitation

Efforts abound to secure access to safe water for the nearly one billion and one-billion-plus without sanitation. But still that effort falls short. Too many people struggle every day to find enough safe - or any - water for themselves and their families. Too many people, many of them children, die every year because the don't have the resources for proper sanitation and hygiene.

This is due, in part, to a growing awareness that the standard philanthropic model of charity doesn't work. Wells are dug, latrines are built, pictures are taken and published in media for the funders back home. Intentions are good but lasting results don't happen. wells sit abandoned or dried-up, latrines broken and unused. Access to clean water is controlled by a "water mafia" after the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective NGO or charity is long gone.

A common thread in my conversations with co-founder Gary White and Safe Water Network Sr. VP for strategic initiatives, Amanda Gimble, was the evolution in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector (WASH) toward using local market-based principals to ensure lasting impact, long after the initial "intervention."

Market-based solutions to the water crisis

This isn't necessarily charity-bashing. There will always be a need for standard philanthropic efforts. Charity may be the only way to reach those that have nothing, living at the absolute bottom of the pyramid (BOP) . Many more live near the BOP, but nonetheless have the means to provide at least the most basic needs for their families. In these situations, mechanisms that allow people access to market-based solutions provides a more sustainable approach to lasting impact.

Two examples of market-based solutions:

  • Micro-lending programs like WaterBankgive access to credit to low-income families in the developing world for installing water systems in their homes and communities.
  • The Safe Water Network uses basic business and marketing principals to build self-sustaining, locally-owned water "stations" that provide a daily source of safe, clean water at affordable prices (about 7 cents buys a 20 liter container of water).

Not enough charity in the world

"There isn't enough charity in the world to provide a total solution" White told me. Where charity is the best solution, of course it needs to be employed. But efforts to innovate market-based solutions is the key to making a real, lasting impact.

As Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, says in this Thomson Reuters Fund interview, the WASH sector has failed to meet the goal of safe water and sanitation for all people. But this failure is only the beginning of the story and the impetus to continue to innovate new solutions. I briefly met Ned while at World Water Week. His frank expression of the reality of this failure, and the need to find new ways to forge real change serves as a good synopsis of my takeaways from Stockholm.

Disclosure: my trip to Stockholm for World Water Week was paid for by PepsiCo. and The Safe Water Network are core partners in PepsiCo's water stewardship initiatives. 

Image credit: World Bank, courtesy flickr

World sanitation graphic: GRID/United Nations Environmental Programme


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