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The problem of cheap water (fixes)

Water pump, Mali
Water pump, Mali
Water pump, Mali

Guest Post: Improving access to clean water is one of the most important, and popular, efforts in the humanitarian sphere. Depending upon whose estimates you use, anywhere from one-sixth to one-third of humanity lacks reliable access to safe, clean drinking water.

Many organizations like the popular group charity:water raise funds for their efforts by successfully marketing the idea of of a simple, cheap fix – “Just $20 can provide a person with clean water.”

In this guest post, Marla Smith-Nilson of Seattle-based Water 1st International explains why it’s not so simple and that cheap fixes are as prone to creating headaches as cheap beer.

See accompanying post Two very different views of charity:water


By Marla Smith-Nilson

When I was in college, my group of nerdy engineering friends decided to apply our technical expertise to analyze beer cost-effectiveness – to see how little we could pay for drinkable beer.

We tested the usual low-budget beers, starting with Budweiser and Pabst, eventually moving to lesser-known beers (in Tucson, in the 1980s, that meant Yuengling and Schaefer beer). We concluded after extensive data analysis and empirical analysis (at the expense of sobriety, and sometimes our digestive tract) that anything cheaper than a $2 six-pack was not worth drinking.

Perhaps you’ve tried the same test with, say, generic brand toilet paper or by purchasing a Yugo car. My son recently had a similar experience with a certain brand of $5 pizza, which I discovered when he and his friends were using the slices as Frisbees instead of eating them.

At some point you conclude that it’s just not worth saving any more money. I believe the same is true with water projects in poor countries.

Over the past few years I’ve seen fundraising pitches from other organizations with claims like “it only costs $20 per person” to provide clean water or save a life. Charity:water is not the first organization to use this marketing tool, but they are probably the most well-known (and most successful). These are very effective pitches. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the fund-raising pitch does not necessarily translate into actually providing people with reliable access to clean, safe drinking water. In fact, promoting such a simplistic message may do harm.

Truth-out ran an interesting piece recently questioning the impact of charity:water’s projects. Some may legitimately defend charity:water, pointing to all they have done to raise awareness of the water issue via social media. I give them credit for that. But the ultimate question is, or should be anyway, if this strategy works to get water to those people who need it most in the most effective and sustainable manner. On that score, the jury is out. Here’s why:

$20 per person doesn’t buy convenience.

Organizations operating in the water field are not using a common definition of the term “access” to clean water.

Ethiopia water line

On a recent visit to Ethiopia, I talked with women waiting in a 2-hour long line in Tutekunche, Oromia, to collect water.

This project meets the common definition of “improved water source” – a sealed water catchment chamber built to protect a pristine spring source. But the quantity of source water was insufficient for the size of the community, especially in the dry season, and the completed project was not conveniently located for all users.

Consequently, to collect water, residents of Tutekunche had to walk from 15 minutes to 2 hours to the water point, and then wait in a 2-hour long line while the water trickled into their 5-gallon plastic water containers.

There is nothing wrong with investing in projects that build spring catchments, filter water at the home, rehabilitate wells, or other activities that are relatively inexpensive in comparison with piped water network. But when we do those things in the absence of an over-arching definition of “access to water,” we are not comparing apples to apples. Or, like I say to my dad, “Miller Lite and Maritime Pacific are both pale lagers, but I only drink one of them.”

Looking at this in the big picture, rather than the relatively minor footprint of charity:water, if we define access to water to include reasonable standards for quality, quantity and convenience, the number of people who currently lack access to safe water is almost 4 billion (more than half the world’s population), or 4 times higher than the number reported by the WHO/Unicef JMP.

If we were to modify the definition of water access to include a maximum time standard for collecting water – say 15 minutes – including walking, queuing, and filling time, then our sector would have to start spending a lot more money on pumps and pipes.

$20 per person doesn’t buy enough water.

We need to commit to projects that supply an adequate quantity of water for each person, for all purposes – drinking, cooking, bathing, laundry and washing hands.  It is simply not possible for 500 people to collect all the water they need from a single collection point.

Yet in a very quick, and perhaps unrepresentative, look at charity:water’s website, I found hand-pumps in Rwanda claiming to serve as many as 4,500 people.  Not only are some residents going to have to make a long walk to that single water collection point, I would expect to see long wait times at the pump as each user (who hasn’t given up on the hand-pump project and gone back to a traditional water source) fills a 5-gallon container to carry home.

$20 per person doesn’t buy water for life.

Finally, as today’s Truthout piece questions, and as I have mentioned before, functionality is not defined. Like most people who work in this field, I’ve been to many communities where, because of weak water system management or poor design, water comes out of taps only once per week or every few days. Users cope by storing as much water as they can collect on the days the water project works and by cutting down on luxury practices like bathing and hand-washing on the days in between.

Not surprisingly, consumer satisfaction with projects like these is usually quite low. And in my experience, when users aren’t satisfied, they stop paying a water fee, which eventually leads to the water project completely failing instead of just limping along.

Not only do we need to put more funding into the initial design of the water project – using standards for quantity of water and water collection time – but we also need to invest in activities that prepare communities to manage their own water systems in perpetuity. These activities aren’t free and require time and effort on the part of professionals involved in on-the-ground project implementation.

To give you a sense of what this might cost, Water 1st projects in Honduras and Ethiopia, where residents live in dispersed rural communities, range from $75 to $150 per person to provide piped water at the household-level or at public taps located within 15 minutes round-trip walk from the farthest home.

Maybe we need to reconsider how we calculate those per person costs in the first place.

I was on the Food and Water Security panel at the Western Regional International Health Conference last spring, where fellow panelist, Dr. William Daniell of the University of Washington, spoke of his work in Cambodia evaluating different types of water systems – from rainwater harvesting to large-scale piped water systems. When his research team factored in the value of transport time, the cost per liter of water over a 10-year time period was two to ten times lower for piped water systems than for other types of water systems with lower up-front costs. Imagine what the outcome would be in rural African countries, where population densities, and thus walk times to community water points, are much lower.

Maybe that explains why water piped directly into our kitchens and bathrooms is the option you and I have all gone with in our households.

Another panelist from UW, Dr. Joe Cook, also spoke of how under-valued water is in most locations, not just poor countries. I certainly saw evidence of this when Seattle Public Utilities recently proposed a rate increase that would push the typical residential water bill from $32 per month to $40. The public response – based on the comments to the Seattle Times article – was pretty negative. I think paying a little more than a $1/day for my house to have safe water, 24-hours per day, to numerous locations inside my house for bathing, flushing toilets, and running my dishwasher and washing machines is a pretty good deal. And don’t tell SPU, but I’d actually be willing to pay quite a bit more for their service.
The challenge is one of priorities

I disagree with charity:water that “the biggest challenge in our sector is monitoring and evaluation.” It’s estimated that less than 5% of organizations provide any long-term monitoring of their projects. Some organizations claim it’s too expensive. Clearly with a budget of $27 million largely from unrestricted sources, charity:water cannot effectively make this argument. Actually, no one can. It’s simply a choice in priorities that organizations are making. The result of this choice in priorities is that as a sector we continue to disrespect donors’ compassionate intentions with the idea that putting a photo and a GPS point on a Google map is “helping people see their impact,” rather than committing adequate funding to support the solutions that are necessary to permanently solve the problems of the world’s poorest people.

While it does seem that talking about failure these days is excellent marketing, I think it’s important to point out that organizations that do this – including mine – are not saying anything new.

As far back as 1981, USAID was talking about it: “It has become overwhelmingly clear that the main obstacle in the use and maintenance of improved water and sanitation systems is not the quality of technology, but the failure in qualified human resources and in management and organization techniques, including a failure to capture community interest. An appalling 35 to 50 percent of such systems in developing countries became inoperable five years after installation.”

And in 1993, USAID nailed it again (and trust me, I rarely say that): “In many technical assistance projects, follow-up receives low priority. Although all parties are aware intellectually of the need for it, the urgency of other business – new activities to plan and manage or paperwork to be completed – frequently has more immediacy and receives greater attention. Little time may be left to seek information on past activities, to see if the objectives really were met, to reflect on experience, and to apply lessons learned.”

Given this backdrop, I find it pretty baffling, and irresponsible, to hear that any organization operating in this sector would not know the status of their own projects. And that is the only piece of information you can obtain from remote sensors. It still takes an experienced professional to follow-up and find the answers to the harder questions, like, “why did the hand-pump stop working in the first place?” and “what are we going to do to keep this from happening again?”

Clearly monitoring and evaluation activities will not have a high priority for this sector until investing in them affects the ability of organizations to find funding for their work, which is why Water 1st and other collaborators have piloted the creation of an independent rating system for water project outcomes. The idea is to provide donors with information on outcomes, allowing them to direct their donations to the best implementers, who may or may not be the best fundraisers. In turn, implementing organizations will be encouraged and rewarded to invest in the best solutions, rather than the cheapest solutions.

Some people may criticize that what I am proposing – getting the entire development community to commit to meeting design standards for water projects and subject themselves to independent evaluations – is expecting too much. And maybe it is given that after at least two decades of talking about long-term functionality of water projects we haven’t managed to change outcomes very much. So as an alternative, let me propose something much simpler: I think the solutions we support should respect the priorities of the people who will use them.

And it’s not really hard to figure out what the highest priorities are for the world’s poorest, because their values and preferences are actually pretty similar to ours. If you don’t want a cut-rate water project for your household, a poor Ethiopian family probably won’t benefit from it either. After all, since I’ve had a job and the ability to have an option, I buy micro-brews (Lagunitas IPA to be specific).

Marla Smith-NilsonMarla Smith-Nilson, founder and director of Water 1st International, has been working on water issues for more than two decades.

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.