So we’ve found out that approximately 750 million people still lack access to clean water. Really what we’re talking about, though, is an improved water supply. With a global population of 7.3 billion, that means that 6.6 billion people have access to improved water.
But what does it mean to have improved water? Simply enough, it means that you have water piped to your home, piped to a shared community tap, or just a protected source that provides clean water (e.g. a well or spring).
What’s the effort involved?
The thing is that these last two groups still must bear the back-breaking burden of carrying an average of 20 liters of water. This means that we have people lugging around 20 kg (44 lbs) on their backs at a global average of 6km/day (3.75 miles/day), though the WHO defines an improved source as one within 1km. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to trudge along with one of those large gym weights for such long distances. Every day.
This leaves out the fact that 20 liters is the amount recommended for a single person, not for a family of five. On top of that, if the carrying container isn’t clean, then all the work done to supply a clean source is for naught.
But piping water to houses is expensive, right?
Nope. I managed a project through EWB in El Salvador that, if we take out the cost of drilling the well (remember we’re talking about people who already have clean water, but must walk for it) delivered water to houses for about $10 a person. Total. The average household size was five people, so we’re talking about $60 per house.
For this project, each house paid around $6/month, meaning that the capital costs would pay for themselves in about ten months. Granted, there are the operation and maintenance costs associated with the system, but estimating conservatively, it would have a return on investment of a year and a half. Considering that most infrastructure projects in the States have a return on investment measured by decades, this is insanely quick.
How many people walk for improved water
I’m currently in Ethiopia where 55 million people have access to improved water (45 million don’t). If we subtract out the 12 million people who already have access to piped water, this leaves 43 million in our target group. It may be significantly easier, though, to work with rural people, so in Ethiopia, which leaves about 38 million people.
In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 2.2 billion people walk to an improved water source, while 1.7 billion of those are in rural areas. I got all of these numbers from an excellent website called Knoema where you can get water and sanitation statistics for every country, even breaking it down into rural and urban populations. Note that they group all of Latin America together and that the colors I show are by percentage of the continent (e.g. about 75% of Africa has access to improved water).
The point in all this is that we can drastically reduce the burden that billions of people endure while providing it at a cost that they can afford. Sure, $6/month may be way too high a cost for many rural people, but even $2/month would have paid for that system within four years, which is still extraordinary for infrastructure. Plus, when we were designing for EWB, radical affordability wasn’t one of our main concerns, so maybe we could’ve gotten the cost down to $8/person.
What’s truly incredible is that this cuts out the need for donations to improve water access for billions of people. If we can utilize the earning power of people and design to the costs that they can afford, we can rapidly create the means for people to radically improve their own lives.