The solvable crisis: Safe water for the whole world

The global water crisis impacts about a third of the world’s population (or more), claiming about 829,000 lives each year. Waterborne illnesses keep people from work, kids out of school, and communities from flourishing. While many water charities use different numbers and terminology to explain it, there’s one thing they all agree on: This is a solvable crisis. 

At NCF, we have the privilege of being connected with some of the leading experts from organizations around the world working on this issue. We’ve brought five of them together in one story to share the most recent updates and their best ideas. We asked them all the same questions: 

  1. What is the problem? 
  2. Why does this problem exist? 
  3. What needs to be done to solve it? 
  4. What is your charity’s role in the solution?
Contaminated water in Tanzania, courtesy of Lifewater International

We learned that the issue of clean water is extremely complex. There is remarkable work being done using a mix of diverse ideas and approaches, all chipping away at the problem. We also learned there may be a way for these individual organizations to come together and solve the global water crisis once and for all. 

We’ve included a glossary of terms related to the global water crisis. This list is filled with links to help you learn more. You might want to open this page and keep the definitions handy as you read.

“Clean” versus “safe”

Lissie Babb, PhD, senior director of program quality, Lifewater | Degrees: Environmental management, geography, sustainable development

Before we can even begin to talk about water, it’s important to define what we mean. Some organizations do not consider “clean water” and “safe water” interchangeable terms. “Clean water, as far as what is visible to the naked eye, is not a good enough standard to determine what will protect and empower a community,” says Lissie Babb, senior director of program quality for Lifewater International. Clean water may still have contaminants. The goal is to provide safe water.

Each organization bringing safe water to those in need is working to solve different parts of this problem. So, when you hear numbers that seem to conflict, you may be comparing how many lack basic access to safe water with the number of people who have safely managed water or even access to latrines. The different numbers are not evidence of conflicting data. They’re just measuring different things.

Now you can understand why some organizations report that 771,000 people lack basic access to water, but others say the global water crisis affects a third of the world’s population (between 2 and 3 billion). Both statements are true.

What is the world water crisis?

The most critical problem is that people are dying – 829,000 every year from water-related diseases. For comparison, in the United States, between the years of 1971 and 2020, the CDC reports 580 total deaths from waterborne outbreaks (though recent research includes more causes/diseases and estimates the numbers are somewhat higher). A disease (or cause of disease) that takes 829,000 lives each year must be eradicated, especially when it’s been proven it can be.

George Greene, IV, PE, president of Water Mission | Degree/licensure: Professional engineer

Besides deaths, however, there are other ramifications. Nearly half of the hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from waterborne illnesses, according to George Greene, IV, president and CEO of Water Mission. “What’s the cost associated with that?” he asks.

It can be measured in numbers of parents who feel too sick to go to work, children who aren’t strong enough to go to school, mothers who can’t care for their families.

“If you think about it, it’s like a tax on the poor,” he says. And this impacts both local and national economies.

Then there are the issues affecting females in communities without clean water. Women and children (usually girls) in countries lacking clean water walk an average of six kilometers a day to get water, carrying an average of 42 pounds on the journey. Along the way, they may be exposed to harassment, sexual assault, and even human traffickers.

And these are just the problems of drinking water. We take sanitation (handwashing) for granted, but the World Health Organization says that 2.3 billion people do not have a place to wash their hands with soap and water. In communities with no handwashing facilities, there can be devastating effects.

Greg Allgood, PhD, vice president of water and health, World Vision | Degrees: Public health and toxicology

According to Greg Allgood, PhD, vice president of water for World Vision, the problem impacts even hospitals and healthcare facilities. “Less than 20 percent of healthcare facilities in Africa have a way for people to wash their hands. So, instead of these being a place where you go to get well, you go and get sick because infectious diseases spread.”

And, though toilets may not seem like an exciting charitable investment, without them, efforts to provide safe water can be compromised, Babb says. Imagine a family with safe water but no bathroom and no handwashing facilities, a very common scenario in low- and lower-middle income countries.

“So, you might be drinking safe water, but … you’ve gone to the restroom in the forest or somewhere else, haven’t been able to wash your hands afterward, and you’ve now got fecal matter on your hand, and then you eat your meal.” It’s not pleasant to talk about, but if it goes unsaid, the missing puzzle piece of handwashing can counteract the benefits of safe water projects.

The ramifications are myriad, and the need is great, but it’s not an impossible problem to solve. We live in a country that resolved the issue of clean water over a century ago.

“We have a solvable crisis,” Greene says. “And we have a blueprint for how to solve it.” Yet the problem persists. “So, it drives the question: ‘Why?’”

Why does the world have this problem?

Allgood points out the correlation between poverty and access to safe water. “There’s more than 700 million people still in extreme poverty. Same as lack clean water. Those areas overlap really strongly,” he says. “Not having the resources in low-income countries to provide the infrastructure that is needed and the training to make sure things are sustained are probably the biggest issues.”

Matt Hangen, MTh, president, CEO Water4 | Degree: Theology

Matt Hangen, president and CEO of Water4, echoes the concern for sustainability. He says this lack of sustainable systems was evident when his organization was founded in 2008. At the time, “Half of the completed water projects in Sub-Saharan Africa were either no longer functioning or breaking not long after they were installed.”

So, why all these failed projects? While poverty and lack of clean water are obviously correlated, it’s clear there’s more to it. There’s a reason why hard work and charitable dollars are spent on systems that eventually break down, and getting to the root cause(s) of this is essential to solving the crisis.

Lifewater’s Babb sees it as both a bottom-up and a top-down problem. “Grassroots is really important,” she says. “You need behavior change, people going house to house, helping educate, helping to promote the need for water, sanitation, and hygiene. Without these things, a project is prone to failure.”

And then you need solid engineering and quality construction. “If we install below-standard or low-quality water points, we’re not really going to solve the crisis,” Babb says. “A community might have safe water for a couple of years, but if the water point is low-quality, it may end up broken and irreparable in just a couple of years’ time.”

High-level, systems-based solutions for ongoing sustainability are also critical. “It’s all good and well for individual organizations to go and put a water point in,” she continues. “But if there isn’t an enabling environment at the national and/or the district level to sustain that water point or to continue the sanitation and hygiene promotion, it’ll just, unfortunately, become a series of one-off activities.”

“So, we have to focus on the higher level as well as doing quality work at the grassroots.”

Water Mission sees two overarching issues. “Why do water projects work in a country like the United States, but they don’t they work in developing countries?” Greene asks. “It’s a complicated issue, but one of the glaring voids is that there is limited regulation.” Charities providing clean water to the rest of the world aren’t held accountable – they don’t have to play by the same set of rules in place for implementing water projects in countries like the United States. Standards exist and are available to be replicated, but there is nothing in place today to make sure that happens.

The second half of the problem, Greene says, is a lack of collaboration and agreement on a universal set of standards. While there are some great examples of water charities working together, it is not the norm. “There has to be an external force to drive accountability across the sector,” he says.

What good work is already happening?

Through our interviews, we identified four big areas where organizations are innovating and finding success. They include the important things, like good technical design, strong project management, intentional community development, without which no project will be sustainable. But they also involve innovation.

1. Community education and engagement

Based on best practices and years of experience, organizations are building community engagement and education programs that really help. When a village understands and accepts WASH best practices, and when they have buy-in or sweat equity in projects, those projects have higher success rates, especially when community leaders are identified to teach neighbors and oversee projects once they’re completed. (Learn more about how one of these community engagement programs works.)

One of the most effective practices has been the establishment of water committees. Water charities report increased long-term success when a water committee is in place. World Vision, which establishes more than 4,000 of these committees each year, sponsored a research project with the University of North Carolina which demonstrated that having women in these leadership positions leads to long-lasting water committees and, therefore, long-lasting water points.

Based on the research, they now work toward committees comprised half of women. “Women collect water even when it’s nearby, so they’ll identify any issues very early,” Allgood says. “And they know the burden of collecting water from long distances will fall back on them if the water point is no longer functioning.”

And having child sponsorship programs in the locations of their water projects has allowed World Vision to walk alongside communities and help the water committees with issues such as succession planning. This continuous proximity helps them ensure continued success of about 80 percent of wells still highly functional after two decades.

2. Church partnerships and discipleship

The truth that Jesus promises living water is not lost on any of the experts we spoke with. Each of their organizations takes a unique approach to sharing the gospel message. Living Water International works with local churches and invites cultural leaders into their planning. As they’ve shared the good news about Jesus in simple ways, they’ve seen results only God could have orchestrated.

Prayer at new water point, courtesy of Living Water International

When a water organization partners with a local church, water can be a catalyst that softens hard hearts and opens doors to ministry. Watch the video to see for yourself.

Jonathan Wiles, PhD candidate, chief operating officer, Living Water International | Degrees: International development and organizational leadership

Local churches are helpful in other ways as well, says Jonathan Wiles, Living Water’s COO. “Often, the local church is really good at creating accountability for good maintenance, but also reestablishing trust when there’s something that breaks down in the human system – not the technical system.”

Living Water involves key community leaders from the very beginning of the process. “You cannot get a clear picture of a community’s needs and obstacles without the right representation at the table,” Wiles says. “As an outsider, you can walk into some of these areas and never know there’s a disabled community,” Wiles offers as example.

“Without getting to know all members of a community, it’s easy to miss entire sections of the population” – sections, he points out, that are the most often overlooked and therefore the most in need.

Though there are plenty of secular water organizations doing good work, this kind of community only a church can provide is built into the programs of many of the Christian water organizations we spoke with.

3. Engineering systems and technology

Without solid engineering, the best-intended water projects will fail. Teams working to evaluate solar water projects for the UN report that weak technical guidance and monitoring are two key factors predictive of failure. Water Mission hopes to change that by offering its technical expertise as a resource to other organizations that come to them.

Founded by the owners of the largest privately owned environmental testing lab in the country at the time (which they sold to create Water Mission), they are technical experts. While Water Mission is directly focused on implementing water projects that serve as examples of what is possible, their staff of engineers is also helping other organizations solve complex problems.

And they are not alone when they make this offer. An impressive group of corporate partners – including the world’s largest pump company and the largest analytical testing organization in the country – help the cause of clean water by offering things like parts available at cost and even engineering new parts where a needed solution doesn’t exist.

By providing everything that’s needed for a water project – from solar panels to valves to pipes and fittings – and with the support of 15 corporate partners, they can essentially cover the value chain of products. “We’ve become almost like a one-stop-shop distributor for the humanitarian world,” Greene says.

Solar panels in Manati, Peru, courtesy of Water Mission

At present, about 40 other water charities come to Water Mission for products, and often the technical knowledge to use them. So, when an organization comes to buy a part, Water Mission may ask something like, “I see you’re building in Haiti. Have you considered incorporating seismic safety factors into the design as well as wind loads for hurricanes? We can help you with that.”

Not only are corporate partners helping with products, they also provide monitoring equipment, which Greene (and others we spoke to) say is essential to ensuring the success of a project after the fact.

“Today, we have the ability to monitor remotely what’s going on with projects anywhere in the world. This brings a level of transparency into projects that historically has not been possible. It’s going to drive accountability to another level,” he says.

4. Financial systems

Community involvement and technical know-how are keys to solving the crisis. But there is another factor that Hangen of Water4 says is critical to reaching the more than 2 billion people in the world who need solutions now.

Simply drilling wells and giving water to communities isn’t going to solve the crisis, Hangen says. “It’s sort of this unspoken tragedy that a quarter of the funding to solve the water crisis exists between governments and charities combined, and then half of projects break down. There isn’t enough money in government and charity alone, so communities receiving the water must necessarily play a financial role.

“Our approach is to link financial incentive of profit and revenue to the ongoing operation of a water point,” Hangen says. So, we start a local business that drills and installs the water project, and then they maintain it as a service company through the ongoing collection of revenue.”

Numa water business in Ghana, photo courtesy of Water4

These water companies build, monitor, maintain, and collect revenue from the water system. They make a living, and the communities pay a nominal amount that everyone can afford. This gives communities the dignity of being customers. Since it’s a business, they influence whether the water is provided in a convenient way for them and if it tastes good.

What Water4 has created is a system that can scale. And since they have built discipleship into their businesses, learning about Jesus scales along with it through weekly discipleship groups (2,500 so far). They are a nonprofit with a for-profit side operating in two countries, with 650 employees working for 19 different companies. They even have their own water brand with a logo and a hip-hop jingle that plays well in the communities they serve.

“It’s like a venture studio,” he says. “We bring charity to provide upfront capital for the company and get the water systems installed. We integrate finances and administration and monitoring systems and all the technical support and training, and then we monitor the businesses as an investor to make sure they’re giving customers what they want.”

“What we see is there’s never going to be an end to charity if we don’t create a linkage between the delivery of water and an incentive to keep the water flowing,” he says.

What is the solution?

“The global water crisis is both urgent and enormous,” Greene says. Despite the many organizations working around the world, “It’s too big for any one of them to tackle alone.”

The key must be collaboration. “We have the resources and the technology, but to truly end the crisis, we need to work together with a universal strategy,” Greene says. A collaborative, global response is needed: standardized training for water professionals, shared resources and wisdom, and methods for scaling impact that rapidly increases the number of sustainable, safe, water projects. 

In an effort to see this become reality, Water Mission launched a separate nonprofit in 2020 known as the Global Water Center. Today a number of water-focused charities are working collaboratively to establish the Global Water Center with an initial focus on three key areas: (1) universally accepted standards, (2) equipping in form of both materials and training, and (3) development of a monitoring, evaluation, and response program that will be capable of serving the WASH sector. But it will take a funding movement to scale.

In 2015, 10 of the world’s largest Bible translation organizations decided to work together, setting off a chain reaction of cooperation among those getting the gospel to the ends of the earth. This approach delighted givers and helped the agencies coordinate their approach and reach the world more systematically and rapidly. The progress they’ve made has been astonishing.

It would take more than 10 water organizations to come together in this way to make that kind of a difference, but it’s possible. And more than two billion people are waiting for something like this to happen.

Water is life-giving. Water is community-building. It’s been proven that water can soften hard hearts, just like it does hard ground. “Water provides freedom to make choices for yourself,” Allgood says. What if that freedom was within reach?

“What we’re talking about is possible,” Greene says. “And as we think about lives hanging in the balance, there is an urgency associated with seeing this crisis solved as fast as possible.”

Top photo: Woman drinks safe water in Ikungula, Tanzania, courtesy of Water Mission

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