While living and working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, Eleanor Allen’s life was changed by 3-year-old Maria Fernanda (her hosts’ granddaughter). “One Sunday I was playing with her, and then she died four days later.”
Contaminated water took Maria Fernanda’s life. “It was so horrible, because it was preventable,” Allen says. “It was so sudden, and I realized this happens all over the world every day.” Determined, Allen saw the situation as a challenge that she needed to help solve. After returning from the Peace Corps, she worked as a consultant on wastewater and sewer systems. Today, she’s the CEO of Water For People, a global nonprofit that focuses on solving one of our most pressing social and environmental challenges: bringing clean water and sanitation to people around the world.
About 1.8 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water. Every 21 seconds, a water-related illness kills a child like Maria Fernanda. Water For People works in nine countries, partnering with local communities and organizations to identify and implement sustainable water and sanitation solutions for rural, underserved communities. Altogether, its programs serve 4 million people.
But installing water pipes and pumps isn’t enough to solve the problem. The developing world is riddled with broken equipment and dry wells built by well-meaning nonprofits that came in, completed the construction, and then left. Water For People used to fly in volunteers from the U.S. to communities in need around the world. But the organization soon realized it’s more important for local citizens to take ownership and learn how to maintain the systems, so it changed its model so that the water projects are much more sustainable.
Today, Water For People uses a concept it calls “Everyone, Forever.” The goal is not only to get everyone access to water, but to make sure the system for doing so is long-lasting. “Our work is done by people who live and work in the communities,” says Allen. Each project begins by engaging with a local politician (typically a mayor) and drafting a formal contract that explains exactly what funding and staffing Water For People will provide and the responsibilities assumed by the local government and community. Residents receive training to maintain infrastructure so the new system remains secure long after the nonprofit leaves. “Our end goal is that Water For People exits and the forever phase is done by the community itself, so the community becomes aid-independent,” Allen says.
“Community buy-in is vital to ensuring the long-term sustainability of a program,” says Erin Connor, critical human-needs portfolio manager for Cisco, which has supported Water For People’s digital transformation. “Water For People has been so successful because it has recognized the key role that communities play in solving local problems, and the role global problem-solvers can play in providing the right training and tools to empower everyone to be a part of the solution.”
Water For People also works on sanitation. “Sanitation and water are always linked, but sanitation challenges are more complicated,” Allen says, explaining that it ultimately involves not only systems, but also individual choices like installing new toilets and learning how to keep water sources clean. Water For People conducts educational programs in the communities it serves, teaching children and families proper sanitation techniques. To sustainably improve sanitation and bring new income into the community, Water For People helps local residents launch businesses that empty septic tanks or outhouses. It also partners with micro-lenders that are already active in the community to offer loans to families installing toilets.
Making a water system sustainable takes manpower, but technology is also a necessity. To identify leaks and ensure that everything continues to work properly, systems must be continually monitored. Water For People staff used to track observations on paper, and then manually input data into spreadsheets. About six years ago, the organization developed a mobile application called FLOW that allowed staff in the field to collect information on the status of water points; they could geo-locate them, take pictures and enter information on flow rate and water quality. The information was sent to an online dashboard, providing Water For People with real-time insight into its operations and enabling it to address failures much faster. Recognizing that this technology could benefit many more organizations, Water For People transferred ownership of the tool to Akvo Foundation in 2012, so that it could scale the solution. With Cisco’s support, Akvo developed FLOW v2.0, which is now used by more than 250 organizations in more than 40 countries around the world.
“The FLOW tool has brought greater transparency and accountability to the entire water sector,” says Connor. “It has allowed organizations to better understand their operations, manage their resources and reach more people.”
The earth has enough water, but the challenge remains: How do you distribute the precious resource fairly and efficiently? Within the next 10 years, Water For People not only aims to reach 7 million people in 50 districts around the world, but it also plans to continue helping new entrepreneurial sanitation businesses grow. Additionally, it’s beginning to partner with national governments and other nonprofit organizations to share what it’s learned in 25 years of working on the problem of clean water. “This is really exciting, because we can leverage our model and have much greater impact,” says Allen.
Bringing clean water to every person around the world is a huge task. By capitalizing on what it’s learned — both its successes and failures — and harnessing the power of the digital revolution to become more efficient, expand its reach and proactively respond to real-time data, Water For People is poised for success.
This article was produced in partnership with Cisco, which believes everyone has the potential to become a global problem solver — to innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur and act as a social change agent.
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