Water Collective: A ‘maintenance-obsessed’ approach to clean water

Bajoh, Cameroon (Credit: Water Collective)

Organizations around the globe recently marked World Water Day (March 22) to highlight the fact that 663 million people still do not have access to improved water sources, according to the World Health Organization.

Water Collective, like many charities, wants to drive that number down. But unlike many charities, they’re “obsessed” with maintaining improved water sources to make sure that number stays down – a challenging task for many reasons.

“Why is it that people continue to not have access to clean water despite so many efforts trying to reverse that?” Sophia Sunwoo, CEO of Water Collective, in an interview with Humanosphere recalled asking her co-founder Josh Braunstein. “We were finding that the reason for that was because a lot of these water projects stop functioning after two to five years.”

The organization states that 40 percent of water points in the developing world “are not working at any given time.” At least in sub-Saharan Africa, estimates from 2009 by the Rural Water Supply Network are similar for broken hand pumps.

“For me, it was very apparent this is a design problem,” said Sunwoo, who has her roots in fashion design. “We’re not thinking through what the user wants and what they need as far as maintaining water systems so it keeps on running after the initial installation.”

As a teenager, Sunwoo launched her first enterprise – a successful clothing line, which she and her partner later sold. But as soon as she realized at university that the fashion industry was not for her, she set her sights on designing solutions for humanitarian crises, like disasters and water.

Lack of access to clean water kills hundreds of thousands of people each year through preventable diarrheal diseases. It also entrenches them in poverty, keeping children out of school and women out of work because they must spend hours each day fetching water instead. The first target of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all” by 2030.

Sunwoo and Braunstein started Water Collective in 2011 with the goal to not only install clean water systems, but also to fix existing broken systems and teach communities how to maintain them. They currently partner with 16 communities in Cameroon and two in India. So far, the organization claims to have reached more than 75,000 people with new systems as well as nearly 60,000 people by fixing broken ones.

Although those numbers may not compare to industry giants like charity: water, Water Collective’s mission is to nail down long-term sustainability – what they call “water independence.” Not only do they want to ensure water systems can continue running years later, they want to empower each community to maintain the systems themselves.

Admittedly, becoming independent requires a bit of dependence at first. According to Sunwoo, Water Collective stays with a community for two to three years after a new water system is installed. Because most water projects fail around the two-year mark, they want to make sure a team is present for that.

“We actually intentionally keep our organization small,” Sunwoo said. “We just felt that in order to actually fulfill our mission of making sure that the water systems were running years on out, we had to intentionally pick projects that are regionally within our field staff’s reach, so that they’re actually able to fulfill that promise of checking up on people to make sure their water systems are still running. That’s how we have kept tabs on communities that we’ve worked with since 2011.”

But after two to three years of “rigorous” training, guidance through troubleshooting processes and knowledge retention assessments, Sunwoo said her team has noticed communities reach a “weaning off point,” where they reach out for staff assistance less and less to tackle the inevitable slew of problems water systems experience.

To foster a sense of ownership – or what Sunwoo called “a relationship with their water system” – Water Collective requires communities to co-finance each new installation. They also engage in group savings plans to self-finance maintenance costs. Sunwoo said she has seen that investment reflected in the initiative many communities take to maintain and even improve their water systems.

Although it’s only been six years, Water Collective’s obsession with maintenance has also begun to rub off on other organizations, Sunwoo noted. However, at least in Cameroon and northern India, governments don’t seem interested.

“In my experience, I’ve found that installing water plants is very political,” Sunwoo said. “We’ve had scenarios where there’s a broken hand pump, and it never worked ever, but a politician installed it because it was a great photo or good for their resume or portfolio.”

But the importance of maintaining clean water systems is becoming harder to ignore, even in the U.S. as the Flint, Mich., water crisis made clear to many of Water Collective’s donors, Sunwoo said. Still a relative newcomer to the clean-water stage, the organization’s demand of the industry – to prove long-term impact – will be have to be its own measuring stick as well.

“Maintenance isn’t sexy,” Sunwoo said, “but it’s become apparent that it’s as important as getting that water system installed in the first place.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.