On World Water Day, March 22, safe drinking water and sanitation experts gather across the globe both to celebrate successes and to develop more effective, sustainable ways of meeting this vital development need. One element of those conversations is that the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation in developing countries poses a number of multidisciplinary challenges:
- This is primarily a global public health challenge, but requires primarily public works solutions.
- Water and sanitation are important in their own right, but both are also vital to sustainable progress for other important development challenges including health, nutrition, education (especially for girls), poverty alleviation, and human security.
- Solutions require innovation, but most importantly they require appropriately and sustainably scaling the answers known since Roman times, or at least since the introduction of chlorine into New Jersey’s municipal water supply in 1903.
As challenging as it is, however, we can undeniably achieve universal access to water and sanitation with today’s technology, funding, and political leadership.
That last statement resonates most loudly for the 884 million people who lack safe drinking water today, and for the 2.6 billion people who lack improved sanitation facilities. The approximately two million deaths due annually to unsafe water and sanitation, and the waterborne diseases causing those deaths, can for the most part be prevented. And preventing them is not simply smart development policy for the United States; it is a life and death situation for millions of people, and a significant leadership opportunity for this Administration and country.
On World Water Day let us recognize that this challenge is not simply solvable. It is being solved by communities all over the world, and the government of the United States and its philanthropies, corporations, and citizens are helping in often very effective and sustainable ways. Health specialists, engineers, and economic development experts work together to not just drill more wells and build more latrines, but to strengthen capacity of indigenous groups and communities in developing countries to provide these services themselves.
So as USAID and its partners in the United States and abroad continue to implement fully the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 [PDF], some suggestions follow on how to accelerate that progress and make sure the work sustains itself over the long run:
2011 is the year of quality, effectiveness, and sustainability in the water and sanitation sector. Implementing agencies of the U.S. Government and outside entities (nonprofits, philanthropists, civic groups like Rotary International, corporate philanthropies, and private citizens) should always ask themselves the tough questions during the early stages of each program:
- Is the activity they are implementing or supporting likely to endure technically? Are local businesspersons trained and incentivized to manage a supply chain?
- Is the financial model in place to ensure that the funds will be available locally to repair, upgrade, or expand the system?
- Is the ribbon-cutting ceremony not just the self-congratulatory end of the program, but simply the next step toward a sustainable water and sanitation intervention that endures 15-20 years?
- Is there an ongoing monitoring and evaluation program whose successes and failures are frequently updated and knowable to all stakeholders?
In today’s tight fiscal times we need the answer to these questions to be “Yes” more frequently than in the past. This will get the biggest possible bang for our dollar, be it a development assistance or a philanthropic dollar.
So on World Water Day let us take a closer look at sustainably tackling the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. This is an unassailably grave yet solvable development challenge, and a multi-track diplomacy opportunity with almost unlimited upside. The United States government and citizens have an opportunity to prevent more waterborne illness and mortality and should redouble efforts to do so in a sustainable, scalable fashion. Let us work together to turn water-related death and disease from an unavoidable fact of life to completely unacceptable.
World Water Day events in the Washington DC area: www.waterday.org
The United Nations World Water Day website: www.worldwaterday.org
UNICEF / WHO Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation: www.wssinfo.org
John Oldfield is Managing Director of the WASH Advocacy Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy effort in Washington DC entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Its mission is to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to solving the problem around the developing world.