Addressing Water Access and Sanitation

by | Feb 11, 2010

von euler, bjornWhile the average person in America uses 400 liters of water each day for drinking, washing and cooking, the average person in the developing world uses only 10 liters. Furthermore, 1.4 million children die every year from diarrhea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation, approximately one in eight people lack safe water supplies and almost two fifths of the world’s population lacks improved sanitation. These numbers make it evident that water and sanitation is a critical global issue.

Recently, I participated in a panel that focused on this increasingly important topic. The panel, entitled “Creating Access to Clean Water: A Top Down vs. Bottom Up Approach” was held at the 2009 Net Impact Conference, a leading event for MBAs, graduate students, and professionals (CSR leaders, social entrepreneurs, etc.) dedicated to making a positive impact on society through business. Joining me on the panel, which was moderated by Cheryl Choge, a consultant for the Global Water Challenge, were Gemma Bulos, Founder and Executive Director of A Single Drop and Kevin McGovern, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Water Initiative.

Through our respective positions, my co-panelists and I all work to provide safe water to those in need through different approaches. In my role, I oversee ITT’s corporate philanthropy program, ITT Watermark, which provides water technology, sanitation facilities and hygiene education to children and families in countries such as China, Honduras and India. A Single Drop works primarily in the Philippines to alleviate poverty by investing in community-led income-generating projects to resolve water issues, while The Water Initiative strives to provide safe water by providing points-of-use filter systems in Mexico.

Though we work in different parts of the world, our discussion made it evident that our approaches are not so different after all—we all see tremendous value in embracing innovative technologies, obtaining community support and collaborating with other organizations to provide safe water and sanitation.

Embracing innovative technologies

There is a need to implement innovative technologies in order to improve access to safe water—including water purification gear, water treatment systems, storage tanks and rainwater catchment systems. Technologies that are successful in one community may not be the best fit for another. The technology must align with the needs of the community while still being affordable and fairly easy to maintain. Interestingly enough, many of the most innovative water systems originate in emerging markets, and these solutions may help inform the technologies needed to address water issues in the developed world. This concept of “reverse innovation” is likely to become increasingly important in the future as the developed world looks for high-tech yet affordable solutions to water issues.

Obtaining community support

Technology is just one side of the equation. There is also a need to address the social side of the water safety and sanitation issue. Community involvement and support are crucial for successful implementation and adoption of sustainable water and sanitation strategies. We must teach community members how to appropriately use the implemented technologies and then empower them to operate, manage and maintain the safe water systems for themselves. We must also educate communities about water, sanitation and hygiene and explain how all of these issues are interconnected. It is particularly important to engage women in water and sanitation initiatives in developing countries. Since women are predominantly responsible for collecting water and are also more conscious of how water and health issues impact their families, they have strong motivation to address these issues. Additionally, studies by the International Water and Sanitation Centre and the World Bank have found that women’s participation in water and sanitation projects are strongly associated with project effectiveness. Through ITT Watermark, we have found that when we educate girls on water and sanitation issues, the return on investment is approximately 10 times higher than when we educate boys.

Collaborating with other organizations and leaders

Finally, as I have mentioned in the past, the private sector needs to collaborate with governments, NGOs and think tanks to effectively raise awareness of water access and safety issues and develop solutions. Finding workable solutions to this global water challenge will require all sectors and citizens to work together—leveraging diverse expertise to spark innovation. Particularly in developing countries, collaboration with local governments and community leaders is also central to obtaining support and implementing sustainable strategies.

With water access and sanitation issues becoming increasingly critical, it is important to raise awareness of these issues and their impact on families, communities and businesses around the world. Speaking in front of students and young professionals interested in making a positive impact on society through business further reminded me that these are the leaders who have the potential to solve tomorrow’s critical water challenges. I hope this panel inspired some of these emerging leaders to strive to do so.

Bjorn Von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp., attended the World Water Week proceedings in Stockholm, Sweden. He is writing a series of reports on the event for Environmental Leader.

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