750 million. For those of us in the field of water and development, this number is familiar. It’s the often quoted amount of people in the world who lack access to clean water. And despite all our best efforts and good intentions, this number persists.
My big question
After volunteering and working in the development field for the better part of a decade, I realized that my peers and I were failing to ask one basic and crucial question: what are the underlying reasons that so many people lack access to clean water? Surely people recognize their own need for clean water. Why haven’t more communities taken action themselves to improve their own access?
Failed “helicopter” and “Band-Aid” approaches
In the past, organizations had a tendency to “helicopter” into a location, build a well, and then leave – patting themselves on the back the entire way. In their wake, they left a staggering number of broken or unused wells and systems across the world. Imported products, such as pumps, proved too expensive or difficult to repair locally.
Since then, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Resources have been spent trying to patch up problems of the “helicopter” past. What “Band-Aids” have been applied? We try to get community buy-in by holding meetings and educating people about the importance of clean water. We attempt to train local people in the proper operation and maintenance procedures for their various systems. We make the effort to build long lasting relationships with communities so that we can understand their issues and help them when they inevitably have problems.
Through both “helicopter” and “Band-Aid” approaches, we’ve formed a habit of addressing the symptoms of lack of water access. We build token components of water infrastructure, whether it’s the construction of sources (e.g. wells, spring boxes, small dams) or distribution systems (e.g. pipe networks, water kiosks with delivery). Time and again, these projects prove to be a temporary fix. The 750-million-person statistic holds, and the fundraising and big spending continues. Aid money flows even when clean water doesn’t.
By treating symptoms, development practitioners miss the point. We’re not answering the big “why” question. The way forward is to dig into the root of the problem to address the underlying barriers to clean water access.
Answering the question
So, the question remains. Why do so many people lack access to clean water? This is the issue that drives me to build 3BL as a business. To answer the question, I have compiled a list of five factors:
- Inability to pay for water amenities
- Let’s note that this is, by far, the biggest reason and many of the other factors listed below result from this problem.
- Lack of access to low-cost engineering design services for simple water infrastructure
- Lack of access to capital to build basic water systems
- Inability to operate and maintain basic water systems, whether that is a result of a shortage of money or technical know-how
- Shortage of a consistent water source nearby
This is by no means comprehensive. The question is an open one – debate and comments are welcome below. Email me at chris@3BLenterprises.com and discuss!