World Water Day: Activist frustrated with fleeting fixes

Water pump, Mali

Today is World Water Day and there’s a big meeting in South Africa as hundreds, or maybe thousands, of organizations are putting out their messages aimed at pretty much saying one thing:

We’re heading for a crisis — or more accurately a bigger crisis that will affect many more of us — if things don’t change.

Anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of humanity right now lacks reliable access to safe, clean drinking water (it depends upon whose estimates you use). Even more lack access to proper sanitation, which contributes to the vicious cycle of water degradation.

Due to our growing global population, increased urbanization and pollution, intense use of water for all sorts of industrial, agricultural or other technological processes, the number of people with poor access to safe water is predicted to rise to two-thirds of the global population. That’s if we don’t work to both expand access to safe water in poor countries while reducing waste in the rich world.

There are many organizations working on this problem. In Seattle, PATH has been pioneering a number of inexpensive technical innovations aimed at improving water safety and the Gates Foundation, though it does put some money ($75 million) into water issues, is focused largely ($140 million) on finding solutions to the problem of sanitation in poor countries. Even the Nature Conservancy, its branch in Seattle, works on global water issues.

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends

But one Seattle resident, Marla Smith-Nilson, has been at this longer than most.

Smith-Nilson is founder and executive director of Water 1st International, a local organization that is working on water and sanitation projects in Bangladesh, India, Honduras and Ethiopia. Water 1st is only about six years old.

But Smith-Nilson has been working on water issues in poor countries for 20 years, having helped launch the much-bigger and high-profile organization — the one that has recruited actor Matt Damon as spokesman for the cause.

I caught up with Smith-Nilson by telephone yesterday. She was asked to speak at a D.C. forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on what we’ve learned so far and how to make progress on improving access to clean water worldwide.

“Well, maybe I should start with what we’re not learning,” Smith-Nilson said. “Twenty years ago, half of all water improvement projects eventually failed … due to lack of training on maintenance, lack of spare parts or other reasons. Today, it’s still the same.”

“We all talk about sustainability and launching projects of lasting impact, getting people reliable access to water, but the rate of failure is the same today as decades ago. This was actually the reason I left There wasn’t enough emphasis on sustainability, on assuring long-term project quality.”

What’s needed, Smith-Nilson told those gathered at the D.C. forum, is for all organizations working in water and sanitation to submit to some kind of independent rating system that rigorously evaluates their performance and long-term sustainability. Right now, she said, no such system of independent evaluation exists other than the typical financial ratings done by organizations like Charity Navigator.

“That is only for financial performance,” said Smith-Nilson. “We need some way to rate organizations on sustainability. Otherwise, we really don’t know if we’re getting anywhere.”

Water 1st has received a $30,000 grant from the Laird Norton Family Foundation to explore establishing such a system and begin the dialogue with others working on water and sanitation.

Sounds like a good idea, but we’ll have to see who shows up and if the donors/funders really press for such a system. Most of us say we favor better accountability and performance measures, for others, but then balk when it comes down to truly allowing outsiders in to scrutinize or criticize our own operation.

Here’s a related story published by the Pulitzer Center March 23 on the meeting Marla attended and the same issue of lack of sustainable project and performance measures.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Judith Harders

    Don’t think it can’t happen here. We have built beyond our water tables; irrigated what should have been drinking water and waste water. We will pay just as we will pay for all of our other sins against the environment. You just wait. Japan will seem petty.

  • Lanilson

    The idea of a measure of sustainability would be most helpful. As a member of our Outreach Team at our church it is sometimes difficult to choose what NGO to support with our limited funds. Charity Navigator is one measure and extensive reading helps but much more is needed. Our church made a relatively large contribution to PlayPumps which proved not to be a sustainable solution in delivering safe water. It seemed like a wonderful idea – practical, fun and the idea was very attractive and had been promoted by the World Bank, USAID and others but PlayPumps required skilled maintenance and hard to get parts and proved to be inappropriate in most communities. Our monies would have supported simpler, sustainable systems in several villages that used simpler technology and included the participation of members of each community in all phases. As a contributor to the work of NGOs our Outreach Team needs to find good ways to make certain that we are not supporting “photogenetic” projects but projects which have high probabilities of being sustainable.
    Larry N.

  • Jim Moore

    Sustainability is an essential quality in any development project. For water and sanitation projects, it means that the communities implementing them have the institutions, the training and the human and monetary resources to operate, maintain and even grow the components over the long term. Donor organizations tend to focus on the capital investment part of the work: drill the wells, construct the water points, campaign for latrines, etc. Efforts may be made to set up community project management organizations and train them. But, follow-up, over a period of years takes effort for which the interest and monetary support are too often lacking.

    The Playpump is a good example of the gimmicky solutions that appeal to donors, but neglect the needs, cultural habits and capabilities of beneficiary communities. Sustainability has much more to do with empowering and equipping community institutions, than with the technical features of the particular project. Good technical design is important, but viable, responsible local institutions are absolutely essential.