Why Charity Can't Solve the Water Crisis

I vividly remember visiting a village in Cambodia where, as is typical, the people lived with no electricity and no running water. But what I observed that day was not typical: the people in this village were watching television in their huts...powered by car batteries. But how, I wondered, did they charge the batteries?

The answer is entrepreneurship. A local man with a motorcycle would regularly travel to the huts, and for a small fee take the batteries to his shop, charge them with a diesel-powered generator, then deliver them back again. In other words, the market had a need, a local entrepreneur identified that need, then devised a way to meet it at a price the market was willing to pay. Even in the jungles of southeast Asia, with people living on a dollar per day, the fundamental model of entrepreneurship was working, such that even the poorest of people were willing to budget and pay regularly for a service that they valued.

A Broken Model

Today, somewhere in a developing country, a well-intentioned service organization will enter a village and drill a water well using funds donated by benevolent Westerners. The village will celebrate, and their lives and health will improve. About six months from today, an o-ring will fail or a part will break, the service organization will have moved on, and the people will have no choice but to once again hike miles each day to draw water from contaminated sources. Their lives will be just as hard as they were before, their children will once again be sick, and they will still be living in poverty.

Unfortunately, this additive, one-free-well-at-a-time approach is currently the common model for addressing the global water crisis. Because of it, fully half of the wells in Africa are broken, and 5,000 children continue to die each day from water-borne disease.

If the UN is to accomplish its Global Goal for Sustainable Development of clean water and sanitation, we must facilitate a radical departure from this charity mindset. We must embrace solutions that are multiplicative in nature -- ones that are self-sustaining and un-reliant on Western aid by design, that break the cycle of dependency, and put the solution squarely in the hands of the people affected by the crisis. There is a name for this model: it's entrepreneurship. It worked in rural Cambodia, and thanks to a small but forward-thinking organization called Water4, it is working today, in other pockets of the developing world.

Not Charity. Opportunity.

When Water4 co-founder Richard Greenly addressed the UN in 2013, he explained why local entrepreneurs are the key to ending the water crisis.

"The fact is, we as a civilization cannot give or grant another country into prosperity and health. It has never worked in the history of the world, and it will not currently work in the water and sanitation crisis," he said. "Every developed country has paid for their own water development by developing water businesses. Commerce is the way out of poverty. Sustainable water development must be put in the hands of local citizens to solve their own water issues."

With this common sense approach, Water4 is disrupting the traditional charity model and moving solidly toward the UN's goal of clean water and sanitation for all. Here's how they're doing it:

  • Knowledge transfer. When a traditional service organization exits a region, they leave behind wells and take their expertise with them. Through a specialized training and support model, when Water4 exits a region, they leave behind skills like welding, machining, and manual drilling; knowledge of geological surveying, hydrogeology, and best drilling practices; and business acumen such as revenue management, financial reporting, and tax preparation.

  • Regionally appropriate technology. The manual drilling tools and pumping device that Water4 invented can be manufactured in-country with regionally available materials. Because the devices are small and portable, they can bring water to remote areas where mechanized rigs can't go. And because they are literally man-powered, they can install wells for up to one-tenth the price of a mechanized drill.
  • Removing roadblocks. As with any enterprise, both a reliable supply chain and job training are critical to success. Water4 has built two Regional Operating Centers (ROCs) -- one in Ghana, and one in Ethiopia -- that are designed to manufacture and ship drilling tools, pumps, and spare parts throughout their respective regions; and also to train, certify, and support dozens of small well-drilling businesses.
  • A Case Study

    John Campbell is an engineer and missionary working in Sierra Leone. Since 2010, his trained teams have not only drilled more than 150 wells using the Water4 method, they have also established a pipe-borne water system that currently serves more than 15,000 people. The system consists of 1.5 miles of pipeline and eight distribution points, at which people pay $0.02 USD per five gallons of filtered, chlorinated water. Over the next few years, the local drill teams will work to incrementally raise the price to $0.04 USD per five gallons, at which point their system will be completely self-sustainable, covering salaries and overhead, as well as profits to reinvest in their business.

    "We've got to get away from chasing donor dollars," says Campbell. "Donor money is limited, but investor money is practically unlimited. If a solution is subsidized, then it's handicapped. It's a false accomplishment. The only real solution is one that's financially viable and can thrive on its own."

    The End In Sight

    One hundred fifty years ago, the United States was a developing country. Abraham Lincoln lost three sons before they reached adulthood, one to typhoid fever -- a waterborne disease -- while he was living in the White House. We solved our problems by leveraging industrial development, government interaction, and free enterprise.

    The water crisis can be solved, too. There is no lack of entrepreneurs, knowledge, or ability. We only lack the will to implement the lessons we've learned through our own development, the successes of transformational organizations like Water4, and the enterprising spirit of a guy in Cambodia with a motorcycle and a generator.

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 6.

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