Lack of safe drinking water in developing countries impacts the lives of millions of people around the world. Unfortunetaly, the problem gets little notice in the West. So, experts are turning to the communities that need water to develop local solutions.
In many areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is a critical shortage of the most basic of commodities.
"One point one billion people still don't have access to water. Eighty percent of them are living in rural areas," says Gary White, executive director of Water Partners International, a non-profit organization that helps provide clean water to communities in developing countries.
"There are a lot more people now in absolute numbers who've gained access to safe water and sanitation," he says. "But with the population growth that the world faces, there are still a huge percentage of people who don't have access."
At the 4th World Water Forum this month in Mexico City, White joined representatives from some 130 countries to discuss ways to improve access to clean water.
"There is always a lot of concern about the hardware side of the problem. There seems to always be plenty of hardware solutions coming forward with the new types of filters, new types of technologies to address the need," he says. "But I was also pleased to see a balance where people were talking about how to get more effective sanitation, more effective hygiene education. You don't really see quite a benefit if just half of the people in your community are practicing proper sanitation. But if you get a total coverage, then you see really great strides being made in terms of improving community health."
Financing those water projects is always a topic of conversation.
"We've come to realize that there just is not enough philanthropy in the world," he says. "There is not enough charity to reach everybody with safe water. People can look for innovative ways to do this."
One of these innovative ways is known as Water Credit. It uses the concept of micro credit to fund water sanitation projects. White says over the last two years, Water Partners International has provided between $300,000 and $400,000 in small loans directly to individuals in developing countries. "Giving people in India, for instance, the opportunity to take out a small loan so they can pay to connect to the water utility in their slum," he says. "What we're finding is that even poor people can participate and contribute to solving their own problem. If we replicate this in other countries, like we'll be doing in Bangladesh, and are doing in Kenya, it'll allow a lot more people to get access to safe water."
Gary White says in many cases, getting access can be as simple as looking at the problem from a different angle. "For those people that are now walking two hours, and sometimes six hours a day to get their water, the solution is just about 20 meters below their feet," he says. "We don't need a miracle cure, we just need to drill a well and make sure there are proper systems in place so people can operate it and maintain it themselves."
The key to solving world water problems is that local involvement, according to White's colleague, Steven Byers. "Our philosophy is that we're not building water projects for people, we're building water projects with people," he says. "We involve them in the planning, they provide a lot of sweat equity in actually building the project. Once the project is completed they have the ownership over it and they take responsibility for the on-going maintenance."
This approach, Byers says, empowers communities to take responsibility not only for solving their own water problem, but also for creating options for future development. He notes that a woman in Ethiopia named Abrahap sent a picture and a letter to him following the construction of a well in her village. "The thing that's important to her and other people in the village is that their daughters are going to have opportunities to do things that they always wished they could do. That's what it's really all about."
Water experts like Steven Byers and Gary White say World Water Day gives them the opportunity to talk about the tremendous transformation that access to water has brought to hundreds of villages around the world… as well as what still needs to be done. However, they say, world water issues are so vital that they should be the focus of discussions every day of the year, not just on World Water Day.