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Why Fund Community Water and Sanitation Projects?

Isn't that what the government does? The short answer is no.

National and local governments in impoverished countries fail to provide basic services such as water and sanitation for a myriad of reasons. The government may be an unresponsive military or civilian dictatorship that fundamentally does not care about its people. Even democratically elected governments may have to cater to the whims of their elites rather than focus on the plight of the poor in order to maintain power. National and local governments frequently lack sufficient tax revenue to provide basic infrastructure and services. To the extent that the national governments depend upon aid from international financial institutions and foreign governments, they are prisoners of the priorities of the donor nations and agencies. These institutions often require that national governments build infrastructure to meet the needs of large industrial or commercial interests, rather than to meet the needs of the poor. For example, rather than create small scale community water projects and distributed electrical generation projects, donors like the World Bank, China, or the United States may fund huge dams to generate large quantities of electricity for industrial purposes and large quantities of water for massive corporate farms and plantations.

International humanitarian agencies like CARE, the International Red Cross, Church World Service, and others frequently focus most of their resources on short-term emergency aid, rather than longer-term development needs. The long term development programs that are created by international humanitarian agencies are frequently built on the basis of grant or contract funding from international financial institutions, donor governments, and foundations. When the cause celebre is no longer water and sanitation, when the world economy suffers an economic downturn, or when a developing country is subject to economic sanctions for a variety of geopolitical reasons, such funding disappears and individual donations to international NGOs suffer as well.

Under these circumstances, there is no reason to believe that national governments, international financial agencies such as the World Bank, foreign governments, or international humanitarian agencies dependent on direct mail and mass publicity campaigns can effectively assure that every person in the world has clean water to drink and sanitation adequate to prevent disease. Although political pressure should be applied on all of these institutions to demand that they provide essential services like water and sanitation, such campaigns are a highly uncertain and at best long-term means to solve the problem. The most immediate and effective means to give the world clean water and sanitation may be for relatively wealthy natural communities in developed countries or rapidly developing countries (schools, churches, service clubs, youth groups) to fund small community water and sanitation projects -- desired by the project community, designed and constructed by the project community with technical assistance and materials supplied by local and regional non-profit organizations indigenous to the area, and operated, maintained, and governed by the community.

How many projects will it take? We don't know. But, assume that international and national institutions will eventually provide water and sanitation for those in the cities. That means we must still provide 750 million people in rural areas with clean water and perhaps twice that with adequate sanitation. If a typical rural project serves 1000 people (some will serve 100, others will serve 5000), we may need over a million small projects. But consider how many communities there are in the developed and rapidly developing countries...many, many more than a million. And the point is...each community can start with a single project. Raise $500, $1500, $5000, or $15,000 to fund a cistern or sand dam for water storage in an area with seasonal droughts, rainwater harvesting or a basic water treatment system to treat water in areas of abundant rainfall, a shallow drinking water wells in areas with abundant groundwater recharge, or a deep well to access water in arid areas. The size of the project will vary with the size, wealth, and commitment built within the community that funds the project. But each of those projects contributes to the vision -- to make clean drinking water and adequate sanitation available to every human being on earth, so that no one need die of water borne diseases and so that the energy and resources currently devoted by poor people to obtaining water, fighting disease, and obtaining health care can be devoted instead to more fulfilling and profitable enterprises. And once a community funds a single community water project, it will want to fund another in a different village or perhaps build a school or a medical clinic in its first village. Once people's eyes are opened and they feel the joy of improving the lives of others, they never want to stop.

The advantage of these "village to village" community projects are numerous:
  • Funds are spent entirely on the projects, rather than maintaining administrative bureaucracies in international financial institutions, international agencies, and national governments.

  • This focused spending is efficient. It reduces costs down to $5-15/person for a lifetime of clean water and adequate sanitation, as opposed to the thousands of dollars required to maintain bureaucracies and otherwise diverted by corrupt officials. Red tape is low and accountability is high.

  • The projects are conducted at the request of the community, with full community participation and ownership. The history of community water and sanitation projects over the last few decades demonstrates that only community-driven projects will be effectively operated, maintained, and utilized.

  • The projects foster local and regional capacity to provide basic infrastructure and services, build indigenous expertise, and develop local and regional governance capacity -- thus facilitating in the long term more democratic, decentralized, participatory governance.

  • The projects build bridges between communities and people. People in relatively wealthy communities come to better appreciate the difficulties of living in an impoverished country, learn about the forces that give rise to persistent poverty, and personally connect with individual people and communities in those countries. As a result, they care more. They lose their biases and stereotypical attitudes. They become committed to helping their sister village -- and that commitment is more likely to survive even hard economic times. In turn, the project communities receiving funding appreciate the assistance and are given hope by knowing that individual people and communities care about them.

  • The projects reduce aid dependency. Projects done through international or foreign aid give an impression that the wealth of developed countries is infinite and create expectations that aid will always be available. Communities benefited by these projects come to understand that all people in developed countries are not wealthy and that they frequently are making sacrifices to provide funding. They also know that the funding from communities in developed countries cannot be relied upon as a stable flow of aid and so the community must strategically select projects to have the greatest impact possible on the community's long term prospects.

  • The projects do not serve to undercut national and local governmental capacity and legitimacy. In those places where the government would like to provide water and sanitation for communities, but simply lacks the financial resources, administrative capacity or technical expertise to run effective water and sanitation services, the project can be coordinated with the national and/or local government -- thus contributing to the legitimacy of the government as well as its capacity to undertake such projects in the future. Thus, unlike many international aid projects conducted by agency staff and international contractors, village to village community water projects conducted by local communities and indigenous NGOs foster rather than undercut governmental capacity and legitimacy.