- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Gary White remembers landing in a grassy field in Ecuador, canoeing two hours to a remote village and finding a gas-powered pump that was supposed to help the impoverished residents get water.

The pump worked only occasionally and, even then, residents usually couldn’t afford the gas to run it.

“A gas-powered pump in the middle of the Amazon?” Mr. White said, shaking his head in dismay.

It is a perfect example, he said, of why nearly half of the well-intentioned efforts to bring reliable, sanitary water supplies to the world’s poor fail.

The dismal failure rate — and the death and disease that a lack of safe water brings to people — persuaded Mr. White to devote his life and his engineering talents to finding better solutions.

After working on projects in Honduras, Mr. White and a friend, Marla Smith-Nilson, in 1993 incorporated a nonprofit group called WaterPartners, with the lofty goal of “reaching a day when everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water.”

Today, despite formidable hurdles, WaterPartners can boast of bringing 82 water supply projects to 75,000 people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In one example, residents of six communities in Honduras constructed a low-tech water system, which involved building miles of pipeline over mountains to a spring, then adding distribution tanks to clean the water in each town. Gravity propels the water from a capped spring to the communities, where every house now has a tap and a toilet.

That effort had the essential elements that make such projects work, said Mr. White, executive director of WaterPartners. It begins with finding established community groups that will lead the projects, from planning and building to training residents to use and maintain them. Projects are as low-tech and inexpensive as possible, and communities are expected to help pay a portion of the maintenance costs, Mr. White said.

“Community mobilization is the key,” he said. “I have archives full of broken-down projects showing when the so-called First World countries dropped into a village, built a project and disappeared.”

There is a dire need to supply safe water to much of the world. The World Health Organization says more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe or adequate water supplies, and water-related diseases are the main cause of death for children younger than 5. Up to 80 percent of the disease in the world can be traced to unhealthy water, Mr. White said.

WaterPartners, based in Kansas City, selects only 5 percent of the organizations it evaluates. Then it provides engineering, as well as health and hygiene training.

Health and hygiene education is imperative because it builds support for the projects, said Mrs. Smith-Nilson, director of international programs for WaterPartners.

“It’s not helpful if they are carrying the clean water home in a dirty bucket,” said Mrs. Smith-Nilson, who is based in Seattle. “It works if they understand that their children are going to be healthier with clean water, that they won’t die or have a serious disease.”

Other problems arise from scarce water. Mr. White said people — usually women and girls — spend millions of hours a year walking to remote sites for water; conflicts arise over scarce water; and the poor in urban areas pay vendors up to 12 times more for a gallon of water than those connected to a water system.

With every other water project doomed to fail, funding is a constant problem. Mr. White said many charitable and government organizations are reluctant to commit to efforts with such a high failure rate.

Most projects are funded with grants, but WaterPartners has implemented an approach called WaterCredit. With the help of two $1 million grants it received last year, WaterCredit will provide loans — usually in combination with grants — to fund projects.

Although some communities are too poor to pay for the projects, many are willing and able to pay at least part of the cost, which gives them a direct stake in the projects, Mr. White said.

“Grants are money that’s given away,” he said. “There will never be enough money given away to solve this problem. Nobody has been willing to provide these people with credit. We believe the loans will stretch out their costs and provide more money for more projects.”

Cultural, social and governmental issues also can affect a water project’s success.

Bill Larson, an associate professor of civil engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has worked on water disinfection projects in Haiti, an effort similar to, but not connected with, WaterPartners.

Mr. Larson said most successful projects avoid government involvement.

“You deal with these small, local groups who are in control of their own destiny more than other people,” he said. Governments “are great at building something new, but not maintaining it.”

John Briscoe, head of the Water and Sanitation Division for the World Health Organization, agreed that weak government institutions make delivering safe water more difficult, but he said progress has been made.

“Every day for the past decade, more than 200,000 people have acquired access to improved water services,” Mr. Briscoe said from India.

Mr. White’s approach to solving the water problem has drawn praise from others in the field.

“Gary has been in water projects for so many years, he has seen what works and what doesn’t,” said David Douglas, president of the Santa Fe-based nonprofit called WaterLines, which has a mission similar to WaterPartners. “He is not parachuting in and imposing a solution, but he works by listening to see what works over time. He also has a very high level of accountability with his funders. I think he carries a tremendous amount of respect.”

Still, many advocates’ greatest frustration is a lack of understanding and apathy about the problem from wealthier countries.

“In America, even a homeless person can go to a water fountain and get a drink,” Mr. White said. “The issue does not resonate with us. But how can we continue to let 5 million people die each year over such a simple thing as water?”

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