Our partner Water For People dropped by the office to talk program expansion with Becky, our water projects director, and give the rest of the staff a peek at what they’re planning for the future.
Here’s their background: In the early 90s, the North American water and wastewater community was struck by the vastness of the world water crisis. How could such a tragedy persist when the water industry in developed nations was more than equipped to help? They realized that it was the social responsibility of the water industry to do something big to change it.
Their ideas — to bring water and sanitation to people in the developing world while instilling community responsibility for each project — were contagious, and leaders from the American Water Works Association and other orgs joined in. By 1991, they’d formed a new org called Water For People. Water For People now partners on water project construction and sanitation programs in 11 nations around the world. Their most extensive work is in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, India and Malawi; we’ve been working with them in Malawi now for more than two years.
Water For People is one of the most innovative orgs in the water sector. Like many, they hope to scale their water programs. But we noticed there are three main areas that set them apart: (1) achieving full water coverage in targeted districts (“solving the water crisis in chunks at a time”); (2) using ecological water technologies appropriate for the particular area; and (3) making themselves eventually unneeded in every community they work.
Ned, Water for People’s CEO, summed up their mission for us:
“We don’t think the problem is just that people don’t have access to water or toilets; another enormous part is that there’s a huge waste in the existing effort. We don’t get overwhelmed by how many don’t have things, but instead want to show solvable solutions.”
And they do — we saw their eco-latrines in Rwanda just last month ourselves (video to come).
Their programs in Honduras and Bolivia prove how narrowing in on a concentrated area pays off. The significantly lower disease rates and improved living conditions of communities with Water For People-supported projects has led to near full water coverage for two municipalities here. This has prompted mayors of other cities nearby to say, “We want to do this, too” — and the government is willing to pay for 50% of the projects in Bolivia. In a district of India, Water For People has succeeded in government investments of 75%.
Ned mentioned a statistic you may have heard before: there are more cell phones in India than there are toilets. Most people are shocked when they hear this for the first time. But are we really surprised by that? To Ned, this isn’t really that staggering — and it actually offers hope, it’s actually something we can use:
“We’ve been trying to figure out, what do cell phones teach us about sanitation?”
In other words, what if we thought of sanitation as an ongoing service? What if the toilet was simply a means to achieve a business end, much like a cell phone is simply a means for years of cell phone service to a person?
Right now, Water For People is trying a new program called “Sanitation as a Business.” They create a “network” of toilets; the user pays for the construction, then pays a fee to have someone clean it out. The clean-out service is monthly — like cell phone service — and it draws the private sector, which is always actively looking for customers, into a community’s sanitation. Even better, the person collecting the waste uses it or sells it to local farmers to use as composted fertilizer.
Here’s a further explanation, shot by Ned in the field:
Water For People never funds 100% of water project costs. Rather, each project is co-financed by the community and the government, building community ownership and also leveraging government funds. We saw this while we were in Rwanda, where Water For People teams up with the government water services, RWASCO, to pipe water to rural villages.
Here’s what the 10-year plan looks like for those receiving a Water For People project:
the community helps pay for construction and starts paying dues in case the project needs repairs or extensions.
the community has enough money collected to replace most expensive part. They’ve demonstrated any problems can be fixed with basic operation and maintenance by the local community.
the community can replace the entire well, if needed, with the dues they’ve pooled and with finance from the local government. They don’t need help or oversight from NGO’s.
“To us, it’s a success if they don’t really need us anymore,” explained Ned. “In Bolivia, we invested in this community years ago, where the government paid 50% of the project, we paid 30%, and the community paid 20%. By now, they’ve bought their own water meters for everyone. They’ve extended new water services to additional families on their own and don’t need financial support from us. They’ve collected enough money to replace their electric pump after only three years.”
Water For People is right beside us on proving and tracking each project using GPS coordinates. They follow up annually on each of their water technologies and sanitation networks. Collecting data to study what’s working (and what’s not) is crucial, says Ned. It’s also interesting and… fun? Yes. “We like this stuff. We’re nerds, really.”