What's the best way to help make the world's water supply safer?

Advice on how to make the world better.
July 22 2009 10:01 AM

Drink to That

What's the best way to help make the world's water supply safer?

A young girl collecting water from holes dug in the ground.
A young girl collecting water from holes dug in the ground 

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I want to help deliver reliable drinking water to Central America. Despite its physical proximity to the United States, Central America has some countries that are among the poorest in the Americas. This means they also have the least access to reliable water supplies. The problem is this: I don't know how to get involved. I am willing to put significant time into a project but am not clear on where I would fit in. Do you have any ideas?

—George

Sandy:

Water's PR agent must be working overtime. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column about Scott Harrison, the founder of the group charity: water. Four days later, Matt Damon announced the merger of his organization H20 Africa with WaterPartners. The new venture, Water.org, describes itself as "an integrated advocacy and fundraising destination for safe water and sanitation issues."

Why water? Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water supplies. Some 3.5 million people die each year from water-related diseases, and almost 3 million of them are children. While most Americans simply turn on the tap, people in many parts of the world spend three hours searching for clean water each day. Not because there isn't enough water to go around but because poor people are systematically denied access to the clean water they need.

But what can you do?

Well, you can donate, of course. Charity: water is working on freshwater projects around the world, including the creation or rehabilitation of 45 wells in Honduras and three spring protections in Haiti. A $20 donation gives clean, safe drinking water to one person  for 20 years. Water.org also does work around the world, including in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to its site, 50.7 percent of Hondurans live in poverty, and 1.2 million don't have access to safe water. For $200 you can give a Honduran household tap water and a toilet.

But as many longtime funders and followers of water and sanitation programs already know, toilets and wells are much more likely to be used and maintained if the community is deeply involved in the process. In Africa, an estimated 50,000 water supply points have failed. The International Institute for Environment and Development estimates that those unusable projects have wasted $215 million to $360 million. So do your research and donate to organizations committed to helping communities that are already engaged in the problem.

That collaboration can come in the form of partnerships with established organizations (which is what charity: water and Water.org do) or by using entrepreneurship to help communities create their own solutions. Water.org has a WaterCredit program in which loans are given to communities and individuals to allow them to address their own needs. One of the five investment portfolios of the Acumen Fund, a global nonprofit venture fund, centers on water and sanitation, "seeking to spur innovation in water access and water quality by improving drinking water, irrigation and sanitation."

If you want to get your hands dirty, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer. Water for People, a nonprofit started in 1991, has more than 56 local committees that support their mission "through community outreach, advocacy, and fundraising." Volunteer to serve on one of their committees or read their suggestions for ideas of how to educate others on the importance of this issue. If you are looking for an even bigger commitment, apply for the World Water Corps, its international volunteer program. This group matches your skills with a volunteer opportunity in one of the five countries where it works (including Guatemala and Honduras).

You can also look for volunteer opportunities elsewhere. Check out Idealist's International Volunteerism Research Center. Or search for virtual volunteering opportunities with the keyword water on Volunteer Match. From blogging about safe water to drilling in West Africa, you should be able to find something that meets your skill set.

Finally, speak up to demand change. Follow the issues and relevant legislation, such as the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009 that's currently stuck in the Senate foreign-relations committee. If you support the legislation, ask your senators to co-sponsor the bill by writing a letter, making a call, or planning a visit.

No matter what you do, there's an enormous potential for return on your investment. Every $1 spent on water and sanitation programs creates an average of $8 in costs averted and productivity gained—not to mention the lives it saves.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com , and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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