Pulitzer Center Update

On water, individuals making a difference

Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center

Population Services International (PSI), the non-profit long known for its international distribution of condoms, is all about prevention – which is why PSI is now a big player on clean water, too.

Sally At last week's World Water Forum the PSI's Sally Cowal told the story of how PSI had been working to distribute oral rehydration salts, to combat the diarrhea that kills some 5,000 people every day.

"We're mostly a prevention organization," she said, "and we decided that if we could prevent the child from getting diarrhea in the first place that would be ever better than treating the diarrhea with oral rehydration salts."

Cowal is one of many individuals at last week's World Water Forum in Istanbul who see the dreadful statistics on the cost of dirty water and inadequate sanitation as a clarion call for action – and who have found innovative ways to make a difference.

You can view them all in the "Share Your Stories" gallery on our WaterWars web portal – and join the conversation yourself.

Crosweller Dave Crosweller, a cherub-faced Briton from Bath who works for the organization Wherever the Need, described the benefits of eco-san toilets, a low-cost dry toilet that keeps urine separate from feces, making the urine usable in agriculture immediately and the feces after composting – all without chemicals and using construction materials as basic as brick and cement.

Wherever the Need has offices in Los Angeles as well as Bath, with demonstration projects currently under way in India, Kenya and Sierra Leone. Crosweller describes the toilet here.

Clarissa Brocklehurst, chief of the water, environment and sanitation section at UNICEF, told a briefing organized by the journalism organization Media21 that in the developing world water and sanitation Clarissabrocklehurst have long been linked. "You can't have clean water unless you've got good sanitation," she said, "and in most cases you can't have good sanitation without access to water."

Yet sanitation has always been the "poor cousin" to water supply, she said, with much less funding and little focus on the behavioral attitudes that make open defecation – and rampant disease – the norm in much of the developing world.

BehavioSamparkerral change was the focus of Sam Parker, CEO of the London-based Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). Parker looks like an ad-agency refugee and in fact it's marketing that he says is key to improving access to clean water and sanitation.

"You can bang on about health" all you like, Parker said, but his research shows that among the urban poor the triggers for behavioral change have a lot more to do with dignity, privacy, convenience and even prestige.

Anders Berntell, head of the Stockholm International Water Institute, struck a similar theme as he Berntell discussed access to clean drinking water. For most of the world the issue isn't availability, he says-- it's society's inability to deliver the product. One proof: the fact that many water-rich counties are among those falling behind on meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals on increased access to water.

Conference talk at the Forum, especially in the media quarters, centered on the public/private divide – how much of a role private companies should play in the provision of water and sanitation services, whether water should be declared a fundamental (and free) human right, and whether "privatization" would leave the poorest of the poor marginalized even more.

Some of the more thoughtful voices dismissed this as a false divide, one that ignored the vital role that both public and private institutions must play to assure clean water and sanitation for all.

John Pasch, the water policy adviser for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development, was asked whether the poor in cities should pay for water. "Yes and no," he said. "In Asia and many other Johnpasch parts of the world I've seen water supply done with cost recovery (from the customers); I've seen it done with community systems in the slums of Sri Lanka. They were glad to pay for it because when they pay they get quality of service. It gives them a choice in the delivery of services."

Pasch calls sanitation more complex, a challenge that experience suggests requires full societal commitment if technological fixes are ever to scale up. He cited the experience of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, three nations that have achieved near universal coverage of toilets – but only after 30 years of full government commitment based on the premise that sanitation should be a right for all.

One encouraging sign on this front, Pasch says, is that governments are committing more dollars to water and sanitation, even in the face of deep recession. You can see it within AID itself, which anticipates a doubling in staff over the next three years and at least $300 million a year in funds mandated by the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act that started to flow this past year. The act was named in honor of the late Sen. Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, a tireless advocate of action against hunger and poverty.Rondenham

For sheer exuberance it's hard to match Ron Denham, a silver-maned Canadian who chairs Rotary International's Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG).

As Denham tells the story Rotarians are into water and sanitation in a very big way, proof that in this challenge there is room for civic-minded individuals as well as foundations, big businesses and government. The projects he describes run the gamut, from rainwater harvesting to slow-sand and ceramic water filters.

The key is that target communities decide what works best for them, and then partner with Rotary clubs around the world to make it happen. The scale speaks for itself: a thousand projects currently, in 100 countries, involving 7,000 Rotary clubs around the globe.