breaking down “$20 brings water for 20 years.”

You have probably heard us say, Tweet or write: $20 can provide clean and safe drinking water to one person for 20 years. In the past few weeks, we’ve removed the “20 years” part from this message. We want to take a minute to explain how we arrived at this number in the first place and why we’re changing it.

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why $20?

The simple math: $20 is the average cost per person to build a charity: water project. That includes funds for sanitation, hygiene training and our partners’ existing maintenance models.

The technologies we fund depend on the region, the local culture and the program of our local implementing partner. Construction in some places can be relatively cheap; in others, even getting out to the project site in the first place costs a fortune. Here’s the breakdown of the average costs per country we work in, to give you an idea of just how much the cost of building a project can vary from program to program:

project costs graph

why 20 years?

Four years ago, the accepted average lifespan of many of our water technologies was 20 years. Since then, charity: water — and the water sector as a whole — has been reevaluating what “sustainability” really means. We’ve always known that $20 per person covers the implementation of the water project on the ground. But we’re now unclear about how much it will cost to maintain our water projects over time; so we don’t want to continue to tell you (and ask you to tell your friends and supporters) that $20 can cover the cost of water for one person for 20 years.

A $20 donation can still give one person access to safe water, since it pays for construction of the project. But keeping the project running over the next 20 years could cost more. This all depends on what maintenance model works best and how (and when) the community fully takes ownership of their project. For now, we’ve eliminated the “20 years” portion of our messaging. We don’t want to promise that a project will last that long on its own. As we determine the cost of project maintenance over time, please know that your $20 still averages out to helping one person gain access to safe water through the construction of a project. We just have yet to know how much that project will continue to cost over decades of time.

water project caretakers in liberia

so how will charity: water projects last?

For each charity: water project we fund, from drilled wells to household BioSand filters, we work with our local partner to include some sort of maintenance component. Just like the cost of building projects, this also varies; in some countries, we form and support local Water Committees to look after the projects. In others, we fund training for individual families to learn how to repair their projects.

We’re also dedicated to innovation in water project sustainability. The water sector as a whole is shifting its focus from the number of projects built to the longevity of these water sources. It’s an exciting time; new opportunities that have come up in just the last few years have potential to drastically increase accountability for water projects and monitor their sustainability.

We’re already piloting or supporting new systems to oversee our projects in the field. Here are a few examples:

Public-Private Partnerships in India.
We’ve supported the establishment of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Centers in two urban districts of India, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The program trains local youth and women to repair and maintain hand pumps. This provides jobs, ensures a repair option for locals and best of all — the center is a business, so it sustains itself. The PPP centers serve as demonstration sites, whose best practices can then be replicated by local government, with our partners indirect involvement and support.

Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) with Water for People.
One of our implementing partners, Water for People, has created an innovative visual data system to make managing projects more transparent and reliable. They upload data — GPS coordinates, populations served, state of the water project — from the field on mobile devices (usually smart phones). This data is then available online for anyone to assess the status of projects. Since we already prove every charity: water project using GPS and photos, we’re hoping FLOW helps us get more information on our projects and get it faster, too.

Clustering in rural Ethiopia.
Monitoring projects in remote areas is very challenging. Our local partners in Ethiopia have adapted by “clustering” many of their charity: water projects to concentrated areas. This makes gathering data easier, as it’s all in one place. It also fosters region-wide accountability; communities learn best practices from others who are taking care of their projects.

want to learn more?

We believe in transparency. Whether you’re a long-time supporter or just now hearing about us, we want you to know how we’re fighting the water crisis. Here’s a quick list of other places to learn the specifics of our work; who we’re helping, what technologies we’re using, how we use 100% of donations to fund water projects and more:

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- The 2009 Annual Report: our numbers, our progress and our movement.
- Why water? A brief overview on how clean water changes everything.
- Sponsoring a water project: a timeline of what happens to your money.
- Proving it: GPS coordinates and photos of our completed projects.
Questions? Concerns? Send us an email and we’ll answer them as best we can.
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