How small steps make a difference in accessing safe water

World Water Day is intended to be a day of action. When we’re reminded that more than 2 billion people don’t have access to safe water, we should be compelled to act. It’s a massive — and deadly — problem, so it can be hard to figure out where to begin. Sometimes, the answer is to start small.

The theme of World Water Day 2019 is “Leaving no one behind.” It’s a crystallization of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 — universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 — reminding us that means all of us, especially the most marginalized, overlooked and hardest to reach. For most of us, water for washing and drinking is taken for granted. We don’t tend to give it a second thought — it’s just there. But that’s not always the case.

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Just this week, many Venezuelans suddenly found themselves without access to water. Another example is the largely forgotten, mostly invisible, suffering of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The most recent headlines about DRC are focused on the Ebola epidemic in the country’s east, where the death toll is nearing 600 — but few people are aware that less than half of its 77 million people have access to safe, clean drinking water. 

The scale and complexity of responding to this urgent need anywhere in DRC is compounded not only by the absence of critical infrastructure across most of the country and widespread conflict, but also the inadequacy of attention and support from the international community. Last year, of the $1.65 billion the UN estimated was needed to meet DRC’s most urgent needs, only $758 million was received.

There is no simple solution of course, but when it comes to DRC’s water problem, Concern Worldwide found that part of the answer lies in small, important, doable actions.

Concern Worldwide led a team with four fellow international organizations — Catholic Relief Services and the French NGOs ACTED, Action Against Hunger, and Solidarités International — called the DRC WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene) Consortium, using an approach centering on “small important doable actions.” The consortium just completed a 6-year program that provides a model for how we can ensure that investments in clean water infrastructure will have lasting impact for the 600 communities they reached in seven provinces across the country, reaching 650,000 people.

True impact depends on improving community hygiene and sanitation behaviors and practices before creating clean water infrastructure and providing services. Small important doable actions include:

  • keeping a clean kitchen
  • transporting and storing water in clean containers
  • hand washing at critical times
  • proper disposal of household waste
  • using a latrine. 

It’s about cultivating a safe and healthy environment that can support and sustain new and rehabilitated water sources by fostering a sense of ownership over community health and well-being.

When the time came to deliver those water sources, many communities did not possess the technical or financial resources to construct the borehole wells or protected springs they needed. So, while we worked to build that infrastructure, we did so in close collaboration with community-appointed committees who would ensure the upkeep and maintenance of the new water points.

The most important task was creating an economic model that positions neighbors not as beneficiaries, but as customers, who pay for the costs of keeping their water sources in good condition in order to have reliable access to water. This also requires revenue-generating activities, such as the sale of agricultural products or garden produce to ensure sustainability. 

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A recent survey of communities whose project support ended two years ago indicates that 99 percent of committees remain in place, and in all, more than seven out of 10 people are able to financially sustain routine maintenance of their water points.

For those of us with clean water at our fingertips, there small important doable actions we can take starting today. Pay attention to that dripping faucet, take care to not over-water your lawn or turn off the water while brushing your teeth. Even in the U.S., sometimes, the answer is to start small.

Aine Fay is the president of Concern Worldwide U.S., serving as the day-to-day leader overseeing the operations of a growing team of more than 50 people engaged in programs, development, communications, advocacy, development education, finance and administration.