Water.org is a non-profit organization that uses innovative solutions inspired by for-profit social enterprises to provide sustainable sources of clean drinking water to poor families and communities in the developing world.
Water.org was co-founded by Gary White and Hollywood star and screenwriter Matt Damon. One of its missions is simply to raise awareness of the severity of the water crisis affecting the world. In much of the Western world, we can simply walk a few feet to a tap and have a seemingly endless supply of clean, safe drinking water pouring into our cup, so it can be hard to imagine an Ethiopian farmer walking two hours a day to fill a jug with muddy water from a well she must share with livestock, wildlife, and thousands of other nearby farm families. Yet that is the situation for many of the world’s people. Nearly 900 million people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, and nearly half of the world lacks access to improved sanitation facilities such as toilets. Of those, about 1.2 billion people don’t have access to any sanitation facilities at all.
The effects of this crisis are staggering, and widespread. About half of all hospitalizations around the world are the result of water-related illnesses. 24,000 children under the age of five die every single day from easily preventable water-related diseases such as diarrhea. Many more children, especially girls, are taken out of school to help their mothers gather water, a process that can take up to six hours a day in some regions. Not only does this prevent these children from improving their lives through education, the hard labor of carrying heavy water jugs every day can stunt their growth, causing other health problems such as difficulty giving birth. Younger children are often left home alone for hours every day while their mothers and older siblings collect water and their fathers work. In addition to forcing parents to pull some children from school and leave others home alone without care, time spent fetching water is also time that adult women and men cannot spend on activities such as farming, managing a small business, helping children with homework, and returning to school to improve their own education.
In addition to improving public health and economic opportunities for poor families, improving sanitation and access to clean drinking water also improves local environmental health. In developing countries, more than 80% of raw sewage is typically discharged directly into lakes, streams, and other waterways. This not only encourages the spread of disease, it also contributes to freshwater pollution that is leading to plummeting levels of biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems around the world.
What They Do
Water.org confronts these problems with a variety of innovative solutions.
Water.org’s projects are demand-driven, meaning they work only with individuals and communities that have contacted them (through local partner organizations) for aid first. This ensures that the community is more invested in the project and increases the chances for long-term sustainability and maintenance of the project. (Worldwide, over 50% of water projects fail within the first few years, usually because the local community is not invested in the project or is not given the skills or tools necessary to maintain it.) One of the first things Water.org does when coming into a new community is to set up a water committee. Because women disproportionately bear the burden of collecting water, the committee must always include female members. Water.org works closely with water committees and the community at large to determine local needs, and emphasizes the use of locally available materials and appropriate technology to build wells and sanitation projects. The local community helps build the project, and is given the training and tools necessary to perform basic maintenance and repairs. Water.org also runs training sessions and other education programs for the local community emphasizing the role of good sanitation in preventing disease.
In addition to these more community-focused programs, Water.org also runs an innovative microcredit program called WaterCredit that offers small loans to individuals and communities to help them improve their access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. Since the founding of the WaterCredit program in 2003, borrowers have taken out $2.5 million in loans, with a repayment rate of 96%. More than 12,000 loans have been issued, benefiting more than 158,000 people.
One WaterCredit success story is that of S. Gandhamani in India, who took out a loan to get a new water supply tap installed in her yard as part of a wider effort to improve access to safe drinking water in her entire village. In addition to saving hr much time that was once spent walking back and forth to a communal tap, the wastewater from her tap now drains into her garden. Once dry and neglected, the garden now blooms with food for her family and for sale. Since the addition of the new tap, Gandhamani has planted a number of banana trees in her garden which have increased her income by the equivalent of five weeks of work per year!
Water.org has made especially effective use of Twitter and other social media platforms to spread the word about its programs. In addition to regularly updating their own Twitter account with the latest news and calls to action, Water.org has set up a retweet app that allows users to “donate” their status to tweets from Water.org. Water.org also used Twitter to launch and promote its Haiti Challenge, an effort to provide clean drinking water for 50,000 Haitian citizens.