At charity: water, we know that building a water project is the easy part. Keeping clean water flowing over time, however, is a complex business that requires money, training and innovative thinking. It's something we've always been committed to.
In some cases, up to 30% of the cost of a charity: water project goes into training and educating the community about how to take care of the well after we're gone. At first, our field partners start with ownership.
We believe if the community feels a strong sense of ownership, they'll see their well as a critical asset to everyone and take good care of it collectively. Another important piece is the formation of a Water Committee. A 6-8 person team is selected from the village (often it's at least half women) and trained to make minor repairs. Often, our partners will leave spare parts for the village in case the well breaks -- because sooner or later, something always breaks. If the Water Committee is in place and active, that will keep water flowing most of the time. But sometimes a problem arises that's too big for even the best Water Committee members to tackle. Communities could wait months for repairs while they go back to drinking dirty water.
Just think of your car. If you get a flat tire, you might fix it yourself. If you need an oil change, you might know the drill. But if your engine starts smoking, it's time to call the mechanic.
It's the same with wells. That's why we believe in funding maintenance programs and employing skilled mechanics to handle larger breakdowns.
In Central African Republic, a team of mobile mechanics visits each of our wells three times a year, doing tune-ups and necessary repairs to keep water flowing. Communities are asked to pay $8 a month to help support the repair costs, but not all can afford the payment. Instead of cash, repair teams sometimes receive goats or chickens as communities show their commitment.
In Malawi, in addition to training Water Committees, our partners trained a local mechanic who's in charge of making sure the water keeps flowing at multiple water points. Communities in his territory call him when their pumps break and he repairs them in exchange for cash or food.
Last year in India, we tried an entirely new approach: investing in entrepreneurs from the ground up, helping them grow their small businesses to repair broken wells. Here's a story of one mechanic who's taken full advantage of our help.
Asharfi Lal is almost 40 years old. He lives in one of India's poorest states, Uttar Pradesh.
His area is a dry one, and if you go back just a few decades, you'll see that most of the people here had no access to clean water.
But in 1981 the Indian government decided to change that, and quickly. In just ten years, thousands of wells were installed across Uttar Pradesh. That was good news for people in the '80s; but as it turns out, not so great for their kids. The UN's "Water Decade" (1981-1990) may have included a ton of new wells, but what it didn't include was a full-fledged maintenance program to keep them running over time.
Soon after the wells started failing, the government responded by creating repair teams. Asharfi remembers when he came across one of them for the first time.
"I was curious," he tells us. "I started following the mechanics; I tagged along. What I observed, I quite liked." At the time, Asharfi was only 16 years old.
He went home and made tools. He practiced on his own time by repairing his own hand pump. Then, he called a local government official and said, "Come, see what I have done!" The official was shocked when he saw clean water gushing from Asharfi's well, and offered him a job.
Before long, however, Asharfi got restless working for the government. He wanted to go faster, be more efficient and offer a stricter guarantee of quality service. So a few years into his new government gig, he left and started his own business.
In the beginning, he fixed as many wells each day as he could by himself. For the next 24 years, he worked long and hard, forming a reputation in his community as the man who could fix any water problem. He was constantly busy, and had a steady income stream. But like any true entrepreneur, steady wasn't good enough.
If he wanted to grow, Asharfi needed venture capital. And early last year, he got it.
Through a new well mechanics program started by our local partner WaterAid, Asharfi was recruited for training. charity: water invested $64,000 across four mechanics centers including Asharfi's, training and equipping a total of 21 mechanics. Suited up with advanced tools, a crew and a facility to manage, Asharfi's team was challenged to repair 50 wells by the end of the year.
When we met him halfway through the year, his team had already repaired 150 wells. Collectively, the four teams we funded were able to reach four times the number of people as originally planned. Of the total requests for hand-pump repairs, 93% were successfully addressed within 24 hours, and only 3% of repair requests took more than two days to address. Within the next few years, Asharfi hopes to expand his team to include 10-15 more mechanics that will cover a larger area of 100 villages.
video shot + edited by Mo Scarpelli
As we think about the future of the water projects we fund around the world, we believe our biggest challenge will be to ensure their sustainability over time. And while working in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach parts of the world makes maintenance that much more complex, our partners are always full of new ideas. We're excited to continue trying new things, and working with communities to find truly innovative solutions that work for them.
We invested $64,000 in four mechanics teams (including Asharfi's), and as a result they were able to repair 1,134 handpumps in 14 months. To build 1,134 new wells at an average of $5,000 each would have cost us $5.6 million. Now that their businesses are set up, they can continue to make repairs without our help, receiving payments from the villages. A simple repair costs a village 100 rupees — roughly $2.00 — with more complex repairs costing up to $6.00.