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The Ripple Effect and the Water Crisis

I gave a talk recently in Denver at the quarterly board meeting of the Millennium Water Alliance (MWA), a coalition of some of the largest implementation-oriented water NGOs in the world. MWA is an all-star team of sorts, a coalition of the leading organizations laboring to improve the delivery of clean water and sanitation services to communities in need around the world. It’s a group that has devoted themselves to the cause and deserves extraordinary respect for their tireless work in service of this goal.

Nonetheless, after countless global actions plans, decade after decade of purported action, we've still not seen the kind of results we got when we tackled epidemics such as polio or smallpox. Moreover, this lack of water not a contagious disease whose origins we must sleuth or whose spread we must halt. This is the most basic stuff – clean water – and the most mundane behaviors – for example, hand washing. These are enormous questions that the MWA – and the broader development community – are struggling to answer.

Despite the apparent intractability of the problem, there are some encouraging developments afoot. New trends such as the emergence of for-profit BOP strategies and non-profit social entrepreneurship are introducing new energy to the sector. New technologies such as UV Waterworks and the DEKA Slingshot could offer breakthroughs. We also have seen a rush of new actors entering the space, including major foundations such as the Jean and Steve Case Foundation and whole new entities like Blue Planet Run. Such players are helping to revitalize the sector and could serve as useful allies for MWA and the traditional community.

I think the recent contributions of the Acumen Fund are particularly noteworthy. Acumen has been at the leading edge of venture philanthropy since its inception in 2001. Its relentless focus on innovation and metrics is revolutionary in the non-profit space.

Acumen recently has started to build alliances with highly unconventional actors like IDEO the award-winning design firm. IDEO is a highly respected firm that normally contracts with F500 companies to build new innovative new products such as the computer mouse and Palm V, among others – so the needs of the impoverished might seem a world apart from their mod Palo Alto headquarters. Nonetheless, their creativity and insights could have a tremendous impact if applied to broader human challenges beyond the optimal PDA design. Thus, it is exciting that Acumen has engaged IDEO to consider new approaches to meet the needs of the billions of people who struggle with water scarcity.

The two firms recently announced a fascinating partnership, the Ripple Effect. Ripple aspires to apply a design perspective to address gaps in the local water value chain that serve impoverished communities in the developing world. By taking a human factors approach to basic issues such as transport and storage of water, Ripple just might identify smart interventions that re-engineer the ordinary practices and prevent the contamination of water supplies.

The project is a team effort –- other participants include the The Aquaya Institute, and Stanford University. I am particularly impressed by their “point of view? as outlined in the Ripple proposal that recently came across my desk:

  • Health is not enough – Simply understanding the health benefits may not be enough to motivate users to change their water collection and usage model. In order to change behavior, we must articulate the value of water through emphasis on lifestyle and convenience.

  • Systems, not objects – Potential solutions should leverage and have the potential to adapt to existing social and cultural traditions, in order to create a flexible and holistic system that engages community partners, from stage of awareness through to distribution and long-term maintenance.

  • Sustainable solutions – Potential solutions should be designed not only to appeal to customers, but also to attract entrepreneurs who can build viable enterprises around these solutions.

  • Scalable solutions – Any system plan must have the potential to be reproduced within an area, and to grow to reach a large number of diverse markets.

There is no silver bullet to the world water crisis. Addressing the crisis certainly is not simply a matter of better product design –- we will need a range of options that accommodate for the myriad varying climatic, hydrological, terrestrial and cultural dimensions of the problem. However, new players like IDEO can offer highly useful lessons from the field of design that, when adapted to the water sector, could yield interesting results.

I am optimistic that such new collaborations will engage incumbents like MWA to develop solutions that integrate behavior, scalability and sustainability and ignite local innovation. In an ideal world, such partnerships might elevate our responses to challenges such as water and catalyze the structural and systemic reforms necessary to induce broader societal change. Ripple might not be the answer per se – there will never be one answer – but I am pleased to see that we are tapping new resources and starting to ask the right questions.


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What is the current status of desalinating and purifying sea water for drinking and irrigation?

Posted by: Rob Jackson on 26 Jan 07

The water sector is prone to the same lack of systems thinking that is slowing down solutions in other environmental sectors.

For example, I'm not sure that it's true that there is a shortage of clean water... Or, another way to look at is, settlements (villages, cities, etc.) make water dirty then it is not available for safe drinking. At the same time, settlements are not water-based anymore, so there is migration to places (San Diego, Phoenix, Dhaka, Lagos, etc.) where there might be jobs but insufficient resource base to support the population there.

At the same time, there are the issues of who cleans the water and water rights. These issues have always existed, and municipalities have been as bad (and as good) as private interests in managing water utilities. This notion that privatization of water (which activists sometimes confuse with water rights issues or don't understand that a function of water or wastewater treatment was contracted to a private company but not "ownership" of that water) is the bane of water provision right now has transferred energy and focus from real water management issues.

Cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Mexico City, which have unsustainable water supplies at current demands, should look to Australian cities for their innovative and progressive management schemes in reaction to an unprecedented drought. Before Californians make finger-pointing films about the water crisis ("Thirst"), they might first consider that Colorado residents cannot collect rain or use graywater without first going to water court. Somebody else (including some Califorians) already owns that water.

It's nice that Dean Kamen and others are looking at new ways to power water filtration. It's obvious that Dean and several champions of particular water filtration systems (often "inventing" technologies that already exist) have never been to a Third World country. This is usually not what stands in the way of provision of water.

Here's a good example of a lack of systems thinking leading to disaster: In Bangladesh, more concentrated populations were leading to drinking water contaminated by excreta of humans and animals, as well as runoff. UNICEF responded by drilling lots of wells. A few years later, the affects of arsenic poisoning started to manifest in the population. UNICEF and other NGOs responded by doing what? Addressing the sources of contamination with ecological solutions? No... drilling deeper wells. With equipment that is hard to transport to remote areas. Arsenic-contaminated wells were marked but the population, now accustomed to this easy source of water, used them anyway. Bangladesh is considering suing UNICEF (and may have already).

Interestingly, many of these countries have quite a lot of rainfall that could be stored and filtered for use. Providing tanks and water filters is a lot cheaper than drilling and represent a "technology" that's transferrable. Also, animal excreta can be easily managed with planted solutions that actually grow animal fodder. Excreta containment and management has been shown to be one of the most effective measures for breaking disease transmissions, second only to handwashing.

Mayling Simpson Herbert has written about "sanitation blindness"---how excreta management is not as glamorous as drilling wells or providing expensive or higher-tech filtration, and so this effective solution is overlooked or dismissed.

As with robust ecosystems, the solutions for water resources are diverse and should be implemented in a complex and integrated way. This is how adaptive, resilient, low-entropy ecosystems work. Those who would have us join an initiative (organized by a Christian organization) for $10,000 that promotes well drilling and sometimes pit latrines (known to contaminate wells) need to get better informed about natural systems.

The alternative is already clear: Expensive one-off programs that promote tech solutions, encourage aid dependence, disrupt existing cultural practices, allow continued contamination of surface waters, and promote easy solutions that are finite (groundwater can be overdrawn, leading to saltwater intrusion).

I'm glad that a bottled water company thought of a market angle to address the bad PR its industry gets, but the solutions are broad, complex, systems-oriented, place-based and not off the shelf (tech based). I recommend these folks start by (1) learning about whole systems, and (2) living the solution.

Posted by: Carol Steinfeld on 31 Jan 07

Wow! Great comment Carol! Not much to add other than to address the first comment. It's still very expensive and energy intensive.

Posted by: dustin on 31 Jan 07



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