Interview with Rotarians on Global Water Challenges

In your speech to Rotarians in New Orleans you proposed that we are entering an “age of water.”  How will an age of water be different from where we’re at now?

Water is needed for many purposes: for health, for agriculture, for many forms of energy production, for a full range of economic activities, for maintaining productive natural systems-- the forests, waters and soils that sustain us and are the basis for all human activity. 

Yet water isn’t always where we need it when we need it.  We know that as populations grow and economic activities, food production and energy needs expand, the demand for water typically increases.  In some places, particularly those in drier climates or those experiencing rapid growth, demand is beginning to exceed available supplies.  New sources will have to be found and that could be quite costly.  I should note, as an aside, that in the United States we have made great strides in using water more efficiently – total water use in the year 2005 was actually lower than in 1975 and per capita use is lower than it has been since 1960. These facts mask specific problems in particular places, however, for instance, the overdraft of non-renewable groundwater in the Ogallala aquifer in the Plains states, which has been a significant boon to agriculture, but now is increasingly expensive for farmers to pump.  Look at Texas:  much of the state has been in severe drought with enormous economic costs to agriculture and ranching.

The challenge for many communities in the developing as well as the developed world is to secure adequate supplies of clean water at affordable rates.  Water is not only essential for life; it is an economic commodity and does follow the laws of supply and demand.  We have to rationalize use and priorities, use what we do efficiently and pay for it in a way that ensures the long-term sustainability of water services, even while making provision for the poorest households.  There’s a long way to go.

All of this, as difficult as it is, occurs in the context of a warming planet.  Water resources are among the earliest signs of impact – prolonged drought, intense storms, more widespread flooding and other effects.  Those impacts will vary greatly from place to place.  "Higher temperatures are going to cause more stress for a number of river systems around the world," according to Peter Gleick, one of the world’s foremost experts on water, in the just released seventh edition of The World's Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources.  “Water quality is very sensitive to climate," he states, noting that a warmer world affects river flows, encourages destructive algae growth and depletes fish populations, among other effects that will have implications for the welfare of people in those places.

Though we have some indications of what’s to come in the large sense, we cannot base plans and projections for communities on past patterns of precipitation.  They are changing and will change more.  This complicates the picture for water resource managers, who have to juggle competing claims and whose decisions will have real-world consequences for people.  And it complicates the job of expanding coverage for drinking water and sanitation services, since these are one purpose, however important, along with other needs in a watershed.

Unlike with oil, there are no substitutes for water.  My key point is to assert that the age of water is quickly approaching and to alert people that we must pay a lot more attention to the availability of supplies, protect sources, moderate demand, monitor and analyze – all to prepare us for greater uncertainty in the availability of water.  Our future well-being depends on this.

You also said that the focus of economic development in the past has been on power, communication, and transportation. How do we shift the focus to water? What needs to change?

We have long experience with investments in power, roads, and related infrastructure.  The payoff in improving people’s lives, especially those who live in rural areas who need access to markets, has been well demonstrated and confirmed by economists, analysts, evaluators and development agencies.

But the case has not been as strongly made for water – at least not yet.  We do know that water and sanitation are fundamental for every single other development objective, whether it is power, infrastructure, health, education, gender equality or any other objective in the development field.  Each is either directly or indirectly related to water.

The tragic deaths of children have been attributed to water-related diseases, most notably diarrhea, but not directly to the lack of clean water, sanitation or hygiene education.  People are securing drinking water, or they wouldn’t survive.  It may be insufficient or contaminated, it may be difficult to get to or transport or cost an exorbitant amount.  But they’re getting it somehow, somewhere.

Those of us in the sector understand intuitively how access to clean water and sanitation make a dramatic difference – in better health, in freeing up time for women who otherwise would have to devote a good bit of their time to collecting water for the family, in keeping girls in school and giving them a future, and more.

But it’s only been in the last few years that economic analyses of interventions and investments in water services have documented the return on investment.  Though these studies typically have been on the macro-economic level, they have shown compelling results.  The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, for example, has studies that suggest downward dampening of economicactivity of up to 8% each year because of inadequate water and sanitation.  Other studies have shown that integrated water, sanitation, and hygiene programs average a return of $8 for every $1 spent.

We do need to show the concrete value of water, sanitation, and hygiene at the community and household level.  To take one example, the evaluations that Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control have done of the school interventions in the Nyanza Province in Kenya, a project of Global Water Challenge supported generously by the Gates Foundation, is among the most rigorous at the local level. Their results are fed into subsequent projects elsewhere in Africa and in Central America. 

A growing body of videos and interviews are telling the story anecdotally, and those are very helpful in dramatizing and humanizing the importance of access to clean water and sanitation.  But we also need more rigorous analyses to drive home the case for increased investment in water and sanitation, so that those government agencies, nongovernmental groups, foundations and international donors who have to allocate scarce funding to a daunting array of challenges increase the priority for water and sanitation.

Water projects have failed in the past, in part, because of a lack of incentive for recipients to keep the infrastructure maintained. Is there a working business model for sustainable water projects?

We need to acknowledge that a water project could be unsustainable for a number of reasons.  Lack of incentives to keep the infrastructure is certainly one, but insufficient training in operations and maintenance or the failure to set up a spare parts supply chain are also common problems that reduce sustainability.

One of the most promising developments is the emergence of entrepreneurial, market-based models for delivering clean water and sanitation services.  In my talk in New Orleans at the annual meeting I described one such venture, Water Health International (WHI), whose treatment technology has provided hundreds of communities in India with clean water at affordable rates. WHI helps structure and finance the project, engages the community fully and trains operators so that when the facility is paid for, the community owns and runs it.

The key to sustaining the facility has been community engagement.  Too often in the past, well-intentioned nongovernmental groups, even development agencies, have taken a straightforward approach:  drill a well or provide a piece of equipment.  But the failure to engage the right stakeholders in the community, particularly women who are often the ones responsible for securing water, meant that when something broke down or wore out, there was no ready means to repair the system, leaving it to fall into disuse.  Moreover, we’ve learned that, though the intervention may be welcome at the start, the community is unlikely to sustain the intervention if they have not contributed funds or labor to the project or paid for the water after services are provided.  It’s their skin in the game and that makes all the difference.

Another promising avenue is the increasing activity of companies that operate facilities around the world that are beginning to see potential risks to their core business from water shortages or contamination.  These risks might come in the form of sick workers or clashes with other local interests over access to water supplies.  Companies are stepping up and fashioning local solutions with the community in mind.  The Coca-Cola Company really set the pace for corporate engagement in water and sanitation, and has now been joined by Cargill, Dow, Ford, Kimberly-Clark, Merck, Procter & Gamble and many others. They bring serious expertise and skills to a community that can help spark something.

Entrepreneurs are trying all kinds of configurations from community latrines to water dispensing kiosks, at which modest payment is required.  These market-oriented solutions are providing people with much-needed water services.  To be fair, the business plan often is better suited for urban areas, less so for rural communities where the number of people is less.  That’s a frontier for would-be entrepreneurs in the sector.

Many of our readers are business and professional leaders. How can they get involved?

This is an educated and informed audience, undoubtedly influential in their communities and often beyond.  Rotary offers those with a background or expertise in one or another aspect of the water sector terrific opportunities to roll their sleeves up, participate hands on in projects, and make a difference in peoples’ lives, much as Rotary’s polio eradication campaign did. 

Rotarians from all walks of life can help raise the issue in community forums by asking questions, by making their views known to elected leaders and other officials, by becoming engaged in their own communities on the water resource issues most relevant to them, from restoring rivers, lakes, estuaries, or other water bodies to promoting efficient water use to protecting critical water sources, to supporting education programs in the schools and other forums. 

The National Environmental Education Foundation, for example, piloted for Environmental Education Week a “Be Water Wise” campaign in 3 cities – Miami, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. – with the goal of developing a packaged program that communities elsewhere can make their own.  Students, with faculty, administrators and custodians, and with the aid of a technical partner, assess their school’s water use, leaks and other problems and present their findings to school officials and civic leaders.  Participating schools have saved water and thus saved money (in Miami, the school district returned part of the savings to the schools for their own use), along with providing students background on hydrology, water use and treatment, science, engineering, civics and more.  It makes these subjects come alive, by focusing on something that matters so much.

I would also encourage business leaders to look at their companies’ water risk and opportunity and see where he or she can make a difference, whether it is “inside the fence” in their own operations or in the communities in which they operate.  Global Water Challenge has some great resources for companies who are interested in increasing their role in the water and sanitation sector and has a strong record of work with leading corporations.

What would be your top five things that need to change to solve the world’s water problems (either on a population, regional, or global level, involving technology, behavior, or anything else)?

The lack of access to clean water and sanitation constitute an urgent need in many parts of the world and as I’ve noted we’re beginning to see new approaches take root.  Much still needs to be done in so many places.  Pressed to cite a handful of important aims, I’d suggest the following:

·         Domestic governments need to take ownership for providing water services to their people.  How they do it is up to them, consistent with their culture and other priorities.  Services could be the responsibility of local or provincial governments; the private sector with full and proper oversight is another route.  No amount of development aid or good work by nongovernmental groups is a substitute for what is inherently an ongoing responsibility of government.

·         To achieve that, I believe we need a stronger advocacy voice within these countries, in those places where political tradition allows people to organize and press for improvements.  So I’d like to see more local and countrywide water and sanitation advocacy groups created and take action.  As Rotary steps up, planting these seeds could ensure Rotary’s legacy is felt around the world.

·         Part and parcel of this is to shine a bright light on the problem, the consequences of inaction and solutions that work.  Expanding coverage for basic water services is not rocket science but an eminently achievable objective and it will pay off in better health and greater opportunity.  That’s the message we need to spread, consistently, constantly, everywhere.  Talk about it, write about it, showcase results, highlight the issue on your website and among Rotarians everywhere.

·         I already mentioned the need for rigorous evaluations and analyses that will get the attention of development agencies, governments, companies and other stakeholders in this sector.  That will underscore the value of investing in specific modes of intervention – for example, bringing clean water and sanitation on a sustainable basis to schools, clinics and orphanages – and the value of training and education programs that build local capacity to undertake and finance projects.

·         Finally, I would say that leadership within the developed world is essential to maintain the commitment of development agencies and international finance institutions like the World Bank and the regional development banks.  Our leaders, elected and otherwise, need to hear from Rotarians and others that this work really makes a difference, that it pays off, that it improves lives and expands opportunity for those without.  There is no shortage of issues that development agencies can devote themselves to.  Making it known that their leadership and support is recognized and matters is something we all can do.


William Reilly