U.S. Water News Online
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Gary White remembers landing in a
grassy field in the Ecuador, canoeing two hours to a remote village
and finding a gas-powered pump that was supposed to help the
impoverished residents get water.
The pump worked only occasionally and, even then, residents
usually couldn't afford the gas to run it.
"A gas-powered pump in the middle of the Amazon?" White says,
shaking his head.
It was a perfect example, he says, of why nearly half of the
well-intentioned efforts to bring reliable, sanitary water supplies
to the world's poor fail.
The dismal failure rate -- and the death and disease that a lack
of safe water brings to people -- convinced White to devote his life
and his engineering talents to finding better solutions.
After working on projects in Honduras, White and a friend, Marla
Smith-Nilson, in 1993 incorporated a nonprofit group called
WaterPartners, with the lofty goal of "reaching a day when everyone
in the world can take a safe drink of water."
Today, despite formidable hurdles, WaterPartners can boast of
bringing 82 water supply projects to 75,000 people in Asia, Africa
and Latin America. All the projects are operating successfully, said
White, the group's executive director.
In one example in Honduras, residents of six communities built a
low-tech water system, which involved building miles of pipeline over
mountains to a spring, then adding distribution tanks to treat the
water in each town. Gravity propels the water from a capped spring to
the communities, where every house now has a tap and a latrine.
That effort had the essential elements that make such projects
work, said White, the group's executive director. It begins with
finding established community groups that will lead the projects,
from planing and building to training to use and maintain them.
Projects are as low-tech and inexpensive as possible, and communities
are expected to help pay a portion of the maintenance costs, White
"Community mobilization is the key," he said. "I have archives
full of broken down projects showing when the so-called First World
countries dropped into a village, built a project, and disappeared."
WaterPartners, which is based in Kansas City, accepts only 5
percent of the organizations it evaluates. Then, it provides
engineering, as well as health and hygiene training.
Health and hygiene education is imperative, said Smith-Nilson,
director of international programs for WaterPartners, because it
builds support for the projects.
"It's not helpful if they are carrying the clean water home in a
dirty bucket," said Smith-Nilson, who is based in Seattle. "It works
if they understand that their children are going to be healthier with
clean water, that they won't die or have a serious disease."
There is a dire need to supply safe water to much of the world.
The World Health Organization says more than 1 billion people do not
have access to safe or adequate water supplies and water-related
diseases are the main cause of death for children under 5. White says
up to 80 percent of the disease in the world can be traced to
And other problems arise from scarce water. White said people --
usually women and girls -- spend millions of hours a year walking to
remote sites for water; conflicts arise over scarce water; and the
poor in urban areas pay vendors up to 12 times more for a gallon of
water than those connected to a water system.
Funding the projects is a constant problem, White said, because
many charitable and government organizations are reluctant to commit
to efforts with such a high failure rate.
Most projects are funded with grants. But WaterPartners has
implemented a new approach called WaterCredit. With the help of two
$1 million grants it received last year, WaterCredit will provide
loans -- usually in combination with grants -- to fund projects.
While some communities are too poor to pay for the projects, many
are willing and able to pay at least part of the cost, which gives
them a direct stake in the projects, White said.
"Grants are money that's given away," he said. "There will never
be enough money given away to solve this problem. Nobody has been
willing to provide these people with credit. We believe the loans
will stretch out their costs, and provide more money for more
Cultural, social and governmental issues also can affect a water
project's success, others involved in the issue say.
Bill Larson, an associate professor of civil engineering at the
Rochester Institute of Technology, has worked on water disinfection
projects in Haiti, an effort similar to, but not connected with,
Larson said most successful projects avoid government involvement.
"You deal with these small local groups who are in control of
their own destiny more than other people," he said. "(Governments)
are great at building something new, but not maintaining it."
John Briscoe, head of the Water and Sanitation Division for the
World Health Organization, agreed that weak government institutions
make delivering safe water more difficult. But he said some progress
has been made.
"Every day for the past decade more than 200,000 people have
acquired access to improved water services," Briscoe said in an
e-mail interview from India.
Still, many advocates' greatest frustration is a lack of
understanding and/or apathy about the problem from wealthier
"In America, even a homeless person can go to a water fountain and
get a drink," White said. "The issue does not resonate with us. But
how can we continue to let 5 million people die each year over such a
simple thing as water?"
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