Delivering Water’s Promise: Getting People the Water They Need for Healthier, More Productive Lives

Valerio Pereno

Current DPhil student Valerio Pereno gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum’s seminar session ‘Delivering Water’s Promise: Getting People the Water They Need for Healthier, More Productive Lives’.
On any other weekday, I would be wearing my white lab coat in the basement of my laboratory on the outskirts of Oxford, preparing for a new set of afternoon experiments. However, at 11.20am, instead of opening the lipid freezer to test a new formulation, I was walking up the stairs of the West Wing of the Saïd Business School to take part in a seminar on water access at the Skoll World Forum.

Within minutes, all the seats in the room were full and Dr. Renwick of Winrock International was opening the discussion. Sitting around the table were representatives of the most influential organisations in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sphere; NGOs, funders and technology experts – all with a common goal: ensuring people have access to the water they need to live healthy and productive lives.

Water undoubtedly plays a key role in all aspects of life – directly affecting health, food security, education and the environment. The water, energy and food nexus cannot be disassembled. Securing a sustainable supply of water for everyone is a key global issue that requires a holistic and integrated approach.

People’s needs. Drinking constitutes only one of the many uses of water, which include household activities (e.g. cooking, washing and sanitary services), agriculture, and manufacturing. The importance of consumer-centered design in ensuring effective water management strategies was a recurring theme of discussion. All stakeholders should be engaged in the design process: what uses do communities have for water? Where, what quality, and how much do they need for each use? Are all the uses intended? These are only a few basic aspects to consider when planning relevant strategies. Programmes that lack consumer-centered design often exhibit a mismatch between what people need and what is provided, subsequently missing the intended outcomes.

Available water sources. Following usage elicitation, a detailed analysis of the available water resources must be performed to lay the bases for efficient allocation. The following classifications may be used to simplify the analysis:

Quality – The organic and material content of the water determines the suitability of a source for its intended use. These parameters often change over time – periodic water analyses are therefore crucial in determining whether a source is potable, or whether it can be used for livestock, irrigation or industrial applications.

Quantity – How much water can a given source provide? Is the availability seasonal? What uses can this source sustain? How will the water be extracted from the source? If so, at what rate? While these questions seem intuitive, they are integral building blocks of the analysis.

Location – Where are the sources and how can they be accessed? Can infrastructure be improved to reduce the time spent to reach the sources? Is the surrounding environment e.g. livestock or industrial waste likely to contaminate the source?

Reliability – Who owns the source and is it renewable? What are the risks of quality deterioration? How long will the extraction mechanism last for and will it require constant maintenance?

Improved health, livelihoods and the environment. Potable water consumption greatly impacts the health and livelihood of local communities. Control of organic contamination of drinking water significantly reduces the incidence of water-borne diseases. These account for 4.1% of the total global Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) and for the death of 1.8 million people every year (WHO, 2004). Provision of a reliable, convenient and safe water source decreases the time spent away from school and work, particularly for women. Likewise, the integration and promotion of WASH activities and education further improves outcomes. Planned use of water sources also positively impacts the environment by reducing waste, protecting crops from brackish water and decreasing the risk of contamination.

Improved service sustainability. Income from livelihood activities provides users with incentives to cover ongoing operational, maintenance and repair costs. A market approach centered on beneficiary needs – with the engagement of the private sector – creates an incentive structure that increases value and strengthens the community. The likelihood of effective maintenance and therefore long-term operation is further increased through the empowerment of local entrepreneurs with the private sector.

Financial institutions also play an important role in providing access to affordable credit to households in order to meet their water and sanitation needs. With access to safe water and sanitation, time that was previously spent fetching water and/or in ill health can be spent on productive activities such as income generation and education.

The way forward. The multiple-use water services approach seeks to define the connection between systems to develop our understanding and ability to manage them with the aim of meeting the needs of the community. This complex topic presents multi-dimensional research challenges that require user-centered, multi/interdisciplinary approaches to addressing them.