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Water, Sanitation, and Sustainability

Do you know that more people have access to a cell phone than a toilet?

For the past three months, my colleagues and I have been helping to develop an advocacy strategy with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of people with access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world. As Megumi Tsutsui mentioned on this blog back in November, the lack of access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world is a global health and development crisis of enormous proportions. Today, there are 2.5 billion people - nearly 40% of the world’s population - that lack access to basic sanitation, and 1 billion without access to clean water.

Since starting work on this water and sanitation project, it has been exciting to see the buzz around the issue and learn about innovative approaches to raising public awareness. For example, in December ABC focused an episode of 20/20 on the water crisis in Africa – featuring a project of charity: water, the most followed nonprofit on Twitter. Similarly, Matt Damon used his recent appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to educate the public about water issues (Damon is the co-founder of water.org).

This increase in public dialogue and awareness of global water and sanitation issues is exciting, but another awareness campaign of equal importance – focused on changing the way current water and sanitation services are provided – is also emerging within the development sector. This campaign targets players within the sector itself, and emphasizes the importance of implementing more sustainable and effective solutions, rather than well-intentioned projects that fall into disrepair within a matter of years.

Many NGOs, donors, and agencies are beginning to join this discussion. One innovative voice on this topic is the organization Water for People, whose CEO Ned Breslin has become a leading voice on this issue. Water for People has also developed an innovative tool called FLOW, to provide real-time access to data on whether a water point or sanitation solution is working, near disrepair, or broken. With FLOW, any community member, nonprofit staff member, volunteer, or other individual can uploaded information on the status of a water point or sanitation solution from any Android phone to a centralized project list. With this information, a broken handpump can be fixed as soon as it is breaks, and the organization can keep track of what is working – and what isn’t – in its solutions across the globe. FLOW is designed using open source technology, and the organization is encouraging other nonprofit organizations to use the technology to monitor the sustainability of their projects as well.

Implementing and scaling more sustainable water and sanitation solutions globally will require many changes – including new product innovations, new models of project financing, and new approaches to project data collection, monitoring and evaluation. Without such changes, traditional programs with unsustainable solutions risk leading to more dry wells, broken hand pumps, and toilets used to store animal feed.

What innovations have you seen addressing sustainability challenges in providing access to clean water or sanitation? What can we learn from solving other health or development challenges that may be relevant to sustainably improving access to clean water and sanitation? Please share your thoughts with us below…

Jennifer Splansky Juster

Executive Director Collective Impact Forum