Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help

Sarah Evans's picture

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help - A perspective from a “Water Charity”

It’s pretty sexy these days to rally around the clean water for all movement. There has been a lot of money invested in marketing and “awareness.” 

The increase in awareness for clean water where it's so desperately needed seems like progress toward ending this crisis. But this will not become an actual "movement," but merely a branding technique - unless the companies involved in making this change know what change is necessary, who is implementing it, and how it's being done (Moore, 2013).    

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help - A perspective from a “Water Charity”

The Hard Water Truth

Most of water charity work does not, in fact, work. The cumulative costs of failed water systems are estimated to be $1.2 billion (Chilton, 2014). Between 43-69 percent of water projects evaluated in Ethiopia last year were not functioning or not producing clean water (TetraTech, 2015). 

The top three US water charities raised a total of $171.3 million in 2013 (Gunther, 2015). But millions of those dollars are estimated to likely be wasted. 

The colossal waste of resources isn’t the only tragedy. Providing a struggling community with a water system— one they significantly invest in and learn to rely on—that breaks will leave them in a worse environment than they were before.

Band-Aids for Bullet Holes 

Most propositions for reform still focus on a standardized system to carry out water work successfully and to be able to measure success and impact. Or, some gadget or gimmick that donors and angel investors promise to be the “magic bullet” to solve this crisis ends up a shocking misuse of funding and offensive vandalizing of the landscapes of developing nations.

The many and complex variables in each project are unique to that area, and they are evolving politically, environmentally and economically. The nuances in project implementation also make the overall algorithm even more impossible to disentangle. 

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help - A perspective from a “Water Charity”

Where, Oh Where Did Your Dollar Go?

Four of the five largest US water charities do not implement (actually build) the water systems they fund (Gunther, 2014). Their websites read that they carefully select the partners to whom they send your dollars and that they receive reports on water well completion.

However, if the water charity has a pile of documents reporting on what probably happened in the field with their funds or if they have running reports on which of their projects are working (Moore, 2013), many times the organization can do nothing about those exact problems. It’s also not a viable solution to take additional donor money to build another separate program to run around countries and make repairs to projects that should have been completed correctly in the first place. 

With every pass-off of every contribution, accountability and investment impact is diluted. This weakens the ability for the charity you gave to in the first place to do anything about project failure.

As an NGO, if we don’t even know which systems work, it’s impossible to understand what went wrong and how to avoid that mistake the next time. When the top four US water charities were asked if they knew which of their projects were functioning, the answer was usually no (Gunther, 2014).

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help - A perspective from a “Water Charity”

It Can Be Done

Knowing that the project is in working order does not denote success. With that piece of information only, we cannot even assume the community (intended beneficiary) is even the group using it. Overtaking land and infrastructure is common in developing countries and water is more valuable than gold. Nor can we know that the water is staying potable, or that the system is creating any positive impact at all.

Considering the world we live in today and the current progressions in technology and obstacles in political and cultural complexities, there is only one way to responsibly provide clean water to those who have none.

So, What Now?

1. We give up the gimmicks.  

We must stop investing in unnecessary technology such as merry-go-rounds (Stellar, 2010) and straw filters (Goldmark, 2011) that end up wasting millions of dollars and litter the communities where they are distributed. We should also stop giving to organizations that are unable to clearly report on their success. 

2. We demand accountability.

International water organizations that are operating projects down the chain of command without understanding the local politics of the community (or local organization/implementor of the project) will fail to truly address the needs of the people they wish to serve by failing to recognize the underlying issues.  

3.  We get to work. 

Direct contact with communities, real relationships with beneficiaries, and having an agile and flexible model is not just the most effective way to provide lasting clean water; it’s the only way to measure success and impact. Just as each project implementation must be approached with a unique solution each time, measurements of success must also. 

4.  We think about the future.

There is a troubling lack of consideration for the long-term effects of water project work, as well as how the future will significantly change how we do it (Rifkin, 2015). 

Our goals for providing clean water to those who have none should be measured by how our efforts and resources have affected long-term change. This requires monitoring, metrics for success, and evaluation over years. 

While the immediate impact of water aid such as that beautiful photo of the young girl gulping crystalline water from a faucet is exciting. It’s also fervently fulfilling for donors, but, it’s only a moment. Creating more of these moments will require long-term planning.

5. We accept and embrace these complexities.

There is no single way to fix an area-wide water crisis because every area is so different, dynamic, and context-specific.  Some of the factors that impact access and allocation of water include level of education, the fertility of the land, various scales of politics, the health of the surrounding economy, and the state of gender equality. The measurements of success and impact in a community, once they have a source of clean water, will also be unique to them. The endless variables and ever-changing project nuances require human negation through thoughtful and meaningful relationships.

There will be failure, and not just the little things that can be mitigated. There will be overall project failure, and it needs to be disclosed. Attempting to protect donors from bad news is actually depriving the industry of valuable lessons learned.

Our failures should be immediate opportunities to switch gears, to use as an opportunity to improve our procedures. We should commit to an overall objective with clear goals but understand that reaching those ends requires creative solutions and excellent (and immediate) change management.

With the understanding that we are working toward permanent change instead of immediate gratification, we should demand NGO accountability (and see past the marketing). 

Developing real relationships and community partnerships are imperative to creating locally relevant, adaptable and sustainable water systems, Failure can be used to refine or adapt our work but should still not be the norm. If we use this understanding in our water aid projects, we can, together, be the people who solved the water crisis.

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help - A perspective from a “Water Charity”



Sarah Evans is the founder and executive director of Well Aware, an Austin-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing life-saving water to people who have none. Well Aware funds, designs and installs clean water systems using a unique sustainability model to ensure that the water systems will last for decades. Under her leadership, Well Aware has completed 27 water projects in just five years, impacting more than 96,000 people, and is on track to more than double their impact in 2016. The organization's reputation for project success (100%) and cost effectiveness (averaging $10 per person for decades) has also prompted numerous collaborations with other NGO's worldwide to guide their water infrastructure projects.



Sources used for this article:

Water Taps and Information Gaps (essay on water charity)

The Problem with charity:water
Moore, 2013

water economist's blog

Rural Water Supply Network

TetraTech, 2015

Chilton, 2014

Rifkin, 2015

Goldmark, 2011

Stellar, 2010


All photos courtesy and copyright WellAware, Greg Davis