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How can we improve access to clean drinking water and sanitation around the world?

March 21, 2019

For this World Water Day, our team members brainstorm ways to achieve the UN’s goal of water for all by 2030

By Katie Chamberlain, Martha FernandesDwight HarriengerJohn Malueg, and Murat Sarioglu

World Water Day focuses on the importance of supporting access to clean drinking water and sanitation across the globe. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) is clear: water for all by 2030. Today, billions of people are still living without safe water.

This year’s theme—“Leave No One Behind: whoever you are, wherever you are, water is your human right”—looks at tackling the water crisis by addressing reasons so many people are left behind. On this World Water Day, we look to our staff—whose community engagement in far-reaching countries spans the globe—for their thoughts on what they’ve seen and what’s needed to get us to the ultimate goal: water for all.

Safe water is one of the most challenging global issues. Hand pumps like this one in a village in India provide the community access to a safe supply of drinking water.

Looking back at your experience around the globe, what’s needed for people in these communities to make a difference in their everyday lives?

Dwight Harrienger: Each community is going to have different needs, and a different answer. No matter the solution, success will be higher when activating the locals to play a role in shaping the work or project from the beginning. Most of these communities could use more jobs. For example, in the Dominican Republic, the water supply is very limited and of marginal quality. There are no public sewers in the village. Some residents take a 90-minute bus ride to work and many rely on purchasing bottled water for drinking. Work maintaining a local water industry could help save time and money but also improve their health.  

Katie Chamberlain: Certainly, an infusion of money makes life easier—that is proven in Western societies. And while money is required to make infrastructure improvements, large sums of cash are not necessarily needed to improve people’s lives. These communities could benefit immensely from education and outreach programs. Teaching children about safe drinking water, proper hygiene practices, and improved sanitary waste disposal methods are important first steps.

Martha Fernandes: While initial financial support is important, the key to making a difference is in solutions that can be effectively maintained over a long period of time. Building on Dwight’s belief, the most important element of any solution is having residents responsible for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of these systems. Pride of ownership goes a long way.

Reductions in time spent collecting water from pumps like this one in the center of the village means there is time for kids to be kids, going to school during the day and time to play.

What is the biggest challenge to SDG6?

Dwight: Education. It seems simple but we still need to educate folks about differences in quality and the importance of clean water. If you don’t know the issues and you are thirsty, you’ll drink from a contaminated stream. Many people in small villages don’t realize the importance of sanitation. There might not be a local health department or municipal water supplier. Often, the water is pumped from wells and the power supply can have frequent outages. Water can be “quietly contaminated,” not just in homes, but in businesses, community centers, and even a school’s water system.

Martha: There are many challenges to the sustainable development goals, however, I believe one of the largest is the identification of local partners—the stewards of the work. We can’t allow the international community to provide that first jolt of movement without the systems and most importantly, the local partners in place to keep moving the work forward.

Murat Sarioglu: The biggest challenges are awareness and climate change. “Every drop counts” isn’t just a convenient expression. Many people, and communities, do not realize the Earth’s water resources are not truly renewable. They are not aware of the importance of water conservation and the need for water efficiency.

The threats of our actions, and inactions, take a toll on our planet. Water is life.

What is the biggest opportunity of SDG6?

Katie: One of the biggest opportunities is improving the quality of life for women and young girls. According to a recent World Health Organization report, women and girls are responsible for water collection in 8 out of 10 households with off-premises water. Reducing the demand on females to provide water for their families will open opportunities, such as equal access to education and establishing themselves in the work force. Ensuring girls attend school in the same way their brothers and male peers can is critical to the sustainability of their community—and the world.

Murat: Technology and water reuse. Technology is going to be our biggest ally in combating climate change and achieving SDG6. With the pace of innovation in the water/wastewater sector and concurrent reduction in costs, water utilities can extend and sustain their services to the community. These advancements are not only an opportunity but the hope for the smart use of future resources.

John Malueg: We need to break down silos, revisit project labels, and relook at how success is defined to make sure safer water for all is a constant. From developing nations to the most industrialized city, virtually every project has the potential to positively or negatively influence the safety of our water and ultimately the sustainability of our world.

Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 8 out of 10 households with water off-premises. In some countries, this process can take hours, but is a necessary daily chore as the water will be used for farming activities, washing clothes, cooking, and providing safe drinking water for families. 

What can the average citizen do to help on a smaller scale? 

Katie: Volunteer your time—or your money—to a reputable organization looking for, striving toward, or fostering solutions. If everyone chips in a little, small donations can go a long way. We need to teach and have compassion for those less fortunate. Develop an understanding about the importance of access to safe drinking water and proper toilets—we take these for granted in America because it’s hard to imagine a life without a toilet or a flowing tap.

Dwight: Establish links with people in different countries that have water supply needs. Support organizations and governments working to end the water crisis by building local human capacity, not just implementing systems.  

Murat: We must share information about the water crisis. Everyone should know that 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe, reliable water and sanitation. You can start by conserving water at home. It may seem small, but if every citizen assumes this responsibility, our resources will last longer. In extreme circumstances mankind can survive without electricity but cannot survive without water. We must realize this importance—the threats of our actions, and inactions, take a toll on our planet. Water is life.

Martha: I am motivated by my peers working toward access to clean water and sanitation for all. This goal appears to be achievable within my lifetime, which is so exciting to think about. But it isn’t going to be easy.

John: Get involved. Insist that the goals of ALL projects—whether career-related, on a voluntary basis, or in your personal life—include a metric towards improving water safety and conservation. By thinking differently, and by incorporating relatively small changes in our approach to traditional problem solving, great gains in quality of life for all can be achieved. Resilience and sustainability represent good business today and a brighter future for our world and generations to come.

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