How to reach everyone with water and make the impossible possible

by Kate Fogelberg | Water for People
Friday, 21 March 2014 08:00 GMT

A girl washes her hands in Villa Rivero, Punata Province, Bolivia. Photo credit: Water for People/I Estrategas

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Although the MDG water goal was met in 2012, much work remains to be done in ensuring that those who have water today will still have water tomorrow

PHOTOBLOG: How little things can lead to big changes in getting access to water for all

This is the last World Water Day before the 2015 Millennium Development Goal deadline. By 2015, the world was supposed to have halved the population of people living without safe water and sanitation. Although the water goal was met in 2012, much work remains to be done in ensuring that those who have water today will still have water tomorrow, as the sad truth is that many water systems fail within a few years of construction. To meet the post-2015 goal of universal access by 2030, every woman, man, and child who has water today must still have water, and an additional 780 million people must be able to open a tap or collect water from a well for the first time. 

On a bumpy road in rural Bolivia, Virginia, one of the few female city council members in South America’s poorest country, described universal water access - or reaching everyone - in her district as “making the impossible possible.” What I love about what she said is that it captures the perceived difficulty in providing water to every person, everywhere; something that in most of the world is a given, but for millions around the world, is still a literal pipe dream. Engineers say it’s too hard to include dispersed families in a technical design, donors say it’s too expensive to reach some people, and politicians say there are not enough votes in those tiny communities, so why bother. But Virginia’s district is very close to making the impossible possible and she estimates they will reach everyone in their district next year - much sooner than the international community’s goal of 2030. 

We have known for many years that access to water can improve health outcomes, especially in children under 5, and that women, in particular, no longer have to spend hours each day collecting water when they have it at home. So the question should no longer be why invest in water, but rather, how to invest in water. And Virginia’s district is one of 30 around the world where Water For People and partners are demonstrating how we can actually reach everyone with water, not just for today, but forever:

  • Simply making everyone the goal: Participatory planning processes include visiting every community within a district to understand the current water situation and begin to plan for water systems that will serve entire communities, not just the “easy-to-reach” centralized populations. 
  • Everybody pays:  Local government, communities, and Water For People all contribute cash to ensure local buy-in, demonstrate the ability to finance future repairs, and reach more people more quickly.
  • Monitoring services and sustainability: The only way to know if people continue to enjoy the benefits of safe water is to go back and look. Water For People and Virginia’s colleagues in the Basic Sanitation office annually visit every water system to document what is working and what is not. 
  • Promoting rational uses of water:  If water is over-used and sources dry up, the pipes that replaced the daily walks of women and girls are useless.  Every water system now comes with household meters in Virginia’s district, precisely to encourage rational water use and equitable payment. 

Governments and NGOs have been drilling wells or piping water from a protected spring to communities in Bolivia, and the world, for decades. All of this time, money, and effort will be wasted if these water systems don’t last; don’t grow as kids turn into parents with homes of their own; if water is over-used and sources dry up. As the international community, and the other 300 districts in Bolivia drive towards reaching everyone by 2030, it must not be at the expense of sustainability, simply meaning that everyone continues to enjoy safe water permanently.  When one person or one family has clean, accessible water, their lives are changed. But when entire regions and countries have water for everyone, forever, the world is changed. Let’s make the impossible possible!