Safe drinking water keeps Cambodian kids in school | 

Children walking to school, Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
Children walking to school, Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
Karen Murphy

If you build it, he will come. In the case of Cambodian schools it is more like: if you provide safe drinking water, kids will go to school.

When schools provided treated water in containers, the rate of absence for students dropped. That is what research published in the health journal PLOS One last month finds.

What makes the study notable is that it shows that the water itself, not necessarily the health gains, are what get kids come to school.

The association between safe drinking water and school attendance is strongest during the dry season. Why students in Cambodia are not going to school during the rainy season is not entirely known.

Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, the study’s lead other and his co-authors surmise that it is due to the farming season.

“There were also strong seasonal effects as absenteeism in several of the schools increased dramatically during the wet season, irrespective of water delivery. We were informed that this increase in absenteeism during the early wet season was partly because children were frequently kept off school to help in the fields,” they write in the study.

What is almost entirely certain is that providing safe drinking water gets kids to go to school during the dry season. They know this because of a delivery problem at one of the schools.

The design of the program was for every class to have one 20 liter bottle of safe drinking water each day. School children then had the opportunity to take water as they wanted, each day. Roughly each student had a half liter of water available each day, costing less than half of a penny per day for each student ($1.40/yr).

The school where deliveries of water were inconsistent saw student attendance react to whether or not the water was at the school. The researchers determined that there was a 2.9% reduction in absenteeism for every container of water delivered at the school. Students were more likely to go to school because of the safe drinking water, not necessarily because of how the water may make them healthier.

The water provided may also have mattered. The 1001F water distributed at the schools was filtered and disinfected by UV light. The use of chlorine is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to treat water, but some people complain that the water does not taste good. The researchers posit that the choice of water may have contributed as an additional incentive for kids to attend school.

“Any scheme to increase drinking water provision in the classroom that does not ensure that that water is safe to drink is likely to put the children at risk of waterborne disease. However, providing safe water in the school environment does not necessarily mean children will drink it,” conclude the authors.

“Indeed taste appears to be a major determinant affecting whether or not people continue to use safe drinking water sources.”

Like most other research, the study concludes that more research is needed. There is a recommendation for a randomized control trial to get a better sense of what is happening and how much credit safe drinking water deserves for keeping kids in school.

TOMS wins over water partner, takes on coffee business | 


TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie took the stage at the South by Southwest Festival last week to make a big announcement. The man behind the company that has pioneered the one-for-one model through its sale of shoes revealed the company’s new venture: coffee.

The sky blue label with a white stripe, a nod to the flag of Argentina, where the design for TOMS shoes were discovered, will now adorn bags of coffee in the company’s expanding stores and neighborhood Whole Foods. Money from each bag or cup sold will help bring clean water to more people in the world. Or as the tagline says: ”Coffee for you, Water for all.”

The coffee itself aims for the middle of the market, something that is better than Starbucks, but not quite at the high end of Counter Culture and Stumptown. Mycoskie and TOMS got a fair share of attention for the new business. He revealed that TOMS will continue to add new ventures each year to extend the organization’s impact and grow the overall business.

The coffee comes from Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi, Peru, and Rwanda and will sell for $13 per twelve ounce bag. TOMS says a bag of coffee will deliver clean water for one person for a week. That comes thanks to a partnership with the Denver-based Water for People. A yet-undisclosed amount of money made from the sale of TOMS coffee will be given to Water for People for its work in the same countries where the coffee originates.

“We have this philanthropic and aid problem where we have long term issues to deal with and the grant cycle does not match,” said Water for People CEO Ned Breslin to Humanosphere. ”We have been looking for ways out of that funding cycle.”

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South African nations off pace for MDGs on water and sanitation | 

Tanzania - Girl misses school to carry water home.
Girl misses school to carry water home. (Tanzania)
Tom Murphy

Only two countries in Southern Africa are likely to achieve improved access to safe water and improved sanitation, by the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The more than 100 million people without safe water and the 174 million without proper sanitation face serious health risks, due to the problem.

“Southern African governments must meet their past promises on water and sanitation and, together with donors, invest at the levels needed to put an end to the crisis that causes hundreds of thousands of children’s lives to be prematurely and needlessly extinguished,” said Robert Kampala, Water Aid’s Head of Region for Southern Africa.

Falling behind means that 40 million people who should have gained access to safe water by 2015 will not. Catching up will come at a price, says the UK-based NGO Water Aid in a new report. The region needs to see spending increase by $3.6 billion per year if it wants to fix the problem.

The massive problem comes with deadly consequences. More than half of all children in Madagascar are affected by diarrhoeal disease, which is more often than not the result of poor water and sanitation. Diarrhea alone kills 14,000 children under five years old each year, in the country. The effects extend to missed school and work, both of which make it harder for families to earn and living, thus slowing down progress for an entire nation.

The news is slightly better for safe water advances than it is for sanitation, in the region. Of the 12 countries in the region, 7 are nearing universal access for water. The rest are off track, says the report. At present, less than half of all people living in the DR Congo, Madagascar and Mozambique have access to clean water. Sanitation is far worse with only three countries on track.

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Business fighting poverty: Water wheels keep on rolling | 

Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Tom Paulson

Everyone knows that access to water is essential for life, but for the poor we should add ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ to the access part.

One of every seven people on the planet, a billion or so of the poorest people worldwide, lack ready access to clean drinking water. In many communities, women and girls have the daily responsibility of traveling long distances every day carrying plastic jugs to collect water.

Progress against extreme poverty is being hamstrung so long as the poorest have to spend a big part of their day doing what we all take for granted.

The best solution, arguably, would be for governments to invest in building the basic infrastructure – water and sewer pipes – that make access to water and sanitation relatively cheap. But until that happens, one entrepreneur has decided to re-invent the wheel.

The water wheel. The Wello water wheel, to be precise:

I met Wello’s CEO Cynthia Koenig a few years ago in Seattle, at a social enterprise competition sponsored by at the University of Washington Foster Schoold of Business.

Back in 2011, all Koenig and her colleagues had was a business plan and an idea. Her concept – of using some kind of rolling container to transport water – wasn’t that new. But her business plan was innovative, in that the idea was not to invent a gizmo and then get poor people to use it; rather it was to test the gizmo among the poor and refine it according to their needs. Continue reading

For World Toilet Day Gates Foundation motto: Every shit has value | 

Ugandans transport a Swiss-made 'diversion' toilet - one of the Gates Foundation's winners in its re-inventing the toilet competition
Ugandans transport a Swiss-made ‘diversion’ toilet – one of the Gates Foundation’s winners in its re-inventing the toilet competition

It’s World Toilet Day so the world is awash with potty humor, bizarre videos and otherwise earnest organizations giddily celebrating the use of obscenity or fart jokes in support of saving lives.

This is the first official World Toilet Day, at least insofar as the United Nations is concerned. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said today, the goal is to draw attention to the fact that 2.5 billion people are endangered by lack of safe sanitation – an inequity that contributes to many water-borne illnesses and deaths around the world. Diarrhea, often caused by poor sanitation, kills some 800,000 annually, for example.

And it’s an economic burden as well: The World Bank estimates poor sanitation costs countries some $260 billion a year in lost productivity.

So, yes, shit is a serious global problem. Continue reading

Free water filter winning public support in Western Kenya | 

Sara Keya fills her LifeStraw.

Malava, Kenya – Praise and controversy followed the announcement by Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen that his company, Vestergaard-Frandsen, would distribute free water filters in Western Kenya backed by $30 million of his own money.

The filter was the LifeStraw and it was distributed to 877,500 households in April and May of 2011.

The company introduced an innovative financing scheme to pay for the device through carbon offsets.The backlash against LifeStraw came nearly as quickly as its praise when introduced in 2005. Critics laughed off the idea of a person literally drinking from a puddle with a straw, as demonstrations showed. Continue reading

Guest Op-Ed: Water projects everywhere, but little accountability | 

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends
Marla Smith-Nilson and friends
Water 1st

This is a guest post by Marla Smith-Nilson, executive director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and one of the original founders of Water.org. Marla, an engineer by training, likes to build things that work and measure effectiveness. Two recent articles in the New York Times set her teeth on edge, one about charity: water and another about Water.org, largely because she felt they contribute to a central problem in what, for lack of a better way of putting it, we can call the humanitarian water aid industry.


The effort to expand access to clean water in poor parts of the world is getting a lot of attention by The New York Times lately. That’s a good thing. What’s not so good is when the attention is diverted away from the central problem in the international water sector – lack of proven effectiveness.

The articles I’m focused on present two differing strategies aimed at providing permanent solutions to the biggest problems of the world’s poorest citizens:  the Robin Hood approach of charity: water and Water.org’s “market-based” approach advocated in the NYT’s Opinionator blog.

Water pump, Mali
Water pump, Mali

When it comes to providing specific solutions to meet the water and sanitation needs for the estimated four billion people lacking reliable access to clean water, both approaches can work well.

For many rural, subsistence-farming communities, the subsidies that charity: water provides to local organizations to build wells are a god-send. I also agree with Water.org, that there is a place for microfinance in the water and sanitation sector, and that approach allows us to reach more people efficiently and effectively.

This isn’t an either/or situation. Both work, but there is also a third way and a fourth way and so on. Water 1st, the organization I work for actually incorporates a little bit of everything into our projects depending on local conditions:  We provide subsidies in some locations, loans in other locations, and a grant/loan combination in other locations. Some of our projects have paid plumbers and builders and others use volunteers.

What the media seems reluctant to report is that the international water and sanitation sector is a huge ‘industry’ that ranges from small NGOs serving one small community all the way up to multi-lateral agencies like the World Bank. This reality is not what’s portrayed in the standard media narrative of the caring, well-intentioned humanitarians digging wells in poor communities.

Turns out, this huge industry has a dismal track record of actually solving the problem of access to clean water at any level. Continue reading

Bornstein calls out charity: water for simplifying clean water solutions | 

Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, pumping water at the well that bears his name in Giramagogo, an Ethiopian village.


Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, pumping water at the well that bears his name in Giramagogo, an Ethiopian village.

Despite what some may say, solving the world’s water crisis is not so simple.

David Bornstein picks up on a recent New York Times Magazine article that profiled a trip of high profile philanthropists with charity:water. The organization that has managed to move millions for clean water receives a rather soft treatment from the piece that raises some questions for Bornstein. He points to promising examples of clean water solutions and criticizes the way that charity:water has simplified the problem.

The organization’s fundraising is guided by the imperative of giving its donors a satisfying experience. However, to do this, Charity: Water has had to simplify the problem and narrow in on one piece of the solution — the piece with the most potential to deliver that experience: individualized water projects, like wells or purification systems, that can be photographed, located on Google Maps, and commemorated with plaques featuring donors’ names. To get the work done, the organization identifies partner organizations across the developing world with track records of delivering results, and provides flexible funding to meet local needs.

To be fair to charity:water, the organization has undergone a lot of learning since it was founded. Founder Scott Harrison is working closely with veterans in the clean water space and the organization made changes in the past to its claims in order to more accurately reflect its impact. Further, charity:water is getting in on the tracking game by installing computer chips to track whether wells are actually working and being used. Continue reading