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Clean Water Is Key Step to Prosperity
March 21, 2012

By Charlene Porter,
IIP Staff Writer
WashingtonA woman carrying a water jug on her head

People in developed countries turn on a water tap a dozen times a day without a thought about how that flow contributes to their life, but in international development, water access is a fundamental premise: Give a community clean water, and you improve quality of life and expand opportunity.

The first people to experience better lives with a clean, accessible water source are women and girls, who can reclaim the hours they spend each day walking to and from the nearby river or lake carrying all the water to meet household needs.

“Imagine all the girls who would stay in school,” said Daniel Yohannes, chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), at a World Water Day event in Washington March 20. “Imagine less disease when people do not have to stay at home recuperating from [waterborne] sickness. Imagine the businesses that can thrive and create jobs.”

MCC rates access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as fundamental to improving well-being because of how access leads to improvements in health, school attendance, productivity and entrepreneurship. MCC is involved in almost $800 million of WASH-related projects in nine countries.

On March 20 MCC brought together representatives from a variety of development agencies and organizations similarly dedicated to expanding access to the estimated 1 billion worldwide without clean water and the 2.5 billion who lack basic sanitation.

Panelists discussed experiences and challenges their organizations have faced in attempting to improve water access in developing world communities. Shared themes emerged: creating sustainability for installed water systems, instilling a sense of local ownership of those systems, and creating a system of accountability to keep those systems functioning.

Ned Breslin, chief executive officer of Water for People, referred again to the lost hours women and girls spend walking long distances for water: “The reality in most parts of the world is they are walking past a broken hand pump or previous infrastructure that’s been put in by some organization.” He said too many development organizations install a water system and then walk away without regard for the community’s capability to sustain the system for the long term.

“I am passionate about sustainability,” said William Asiko, president of the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, which is working in a number of nations to improve water access. “How do we insure that this infrastructure is going to work after we have implemented the program?” asked Asiko, recalling failed infrastructure from his own experience as a native Kenyan.

His foundation is working on a project it calls Safe Water for Africa, hoping to bring clean water to communities in four nations, benefiting 2 million people in five years. Gaining the commitment from a local community is a key step in the process to install water filtration facilities, Asiko said. “They donate the land locally where the filtration plant will be built. They set up water committees to run the plant.”

The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation has a number of partners in Safe Water for Africa, including a competing beverage company.

Breslin said Water for People is also ensuring that local communities are partners in water access projects from the outset. He said his organization’s latest strategy is a campaign called Everyone Forever, now operating in 30 communities in 10 countries. The objective, he said, is to win community commitment that water accessibility will be delivered to “every family, every school, every clinic.” While Water for People makes a financial commitment to build a water system, the organization also insists that local communities and their national governments make investments as well.

“Often we start out with a very heavy investment,” Breslin said. “In India we started with 80 to 85 percent of all costs associated with all projects. We are now down to 10 percent.” Water for People worked with Indian communities to win financial commitments from their national government to support the water system projects so the NGO’s funds could be reduced over time.

A major advocate for water access issues in the U.S. House of Representatives also joined the meeting to echo the observation that sustainable programs must be the objective. An unsuccessful water project is “a lost opportunity,” said Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer. “It discourages people, it sets us back.” He encouraged the water development specialists participating in the MCC session to use their knowledge of “failed experiments” to find the better path to success in the future.

Blumenauer was a key sponsor and advocate for the Water for the Poor Act, passed into law in 2005, making clean water access in the developing world a U.S. foreign policy objective.

MCC held the event in recognition of World Water Day, observed on March 22.