By Mark Van Putten
Philanthropists have a long record of deploying resources creatively as a catalyst for important, life-saving change.
But they have yet to fully tackle the greatest cause of human death and suffering — the lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation.
Diseases related to unclean water kill between three million and five million people each year, causing an estimated 80 percent of all sicknesses in the developing world and more than 90 percent of infant deaths.
A child dies from water-borne illness every fifteen seconds. Girls drop out of school because of inadequate sanitation and to haul water for their families. And recurrent water-borne illnesses are a major cause of absenteeism in schools and workplaces.
We have both the technology and the ability to solve all these problems.
The solutions are proven and readily available – rainwater catchments, bore-hole wells, springs protection, water filters and treatments, simple latrines, and basic hygiene education.
Experienced organizations, large and small, are active in virtually every country around the world applying a culturally and technologically appropriate mix of these approaches with dramatic results.
All that is lacking is adequate resources.
Fortunately, this is changing as foundations, individuals, businesses, faith-based organizations, civic groups and governments focus on this challenge.
The global Millennium Development Goals call for halving the proportion of people without safe water and sanitation by 2015.
Governments of developing countries are focusing resources on this problem and, in many cases, changing policies and structures to address it more effectively.
In the U.S., the Water For The Poor Act of 2005 elevated this problem to a top priority of U.S. foreign policy, required a federal-government-wide strategy and annual reports to Congress, and encouraged public-private partnerships.
Recently, congressional committees have approved $300 million to implement the act, much of which could be used to match private sector initiatives.
New collaborations of donors, including the Global Water Challenge, have been launched to pool effectively the resources of foundations, individual donors and businesses.
The Millennium Water Alliance coordinates the work of experienced implementing organizations.
And, a diverse group of U.S. organizations are developing a new program to bring safe drinking water and adequate sanitation to 1,000 schools worldwide by next World Water Day on March 22, 2008.
Complacency is the only barrier to success.
Americans take for granted the safe drinking water available at the twist of a tap and the availability of sanitation services and good hygiene practices.
The low-tech simplicity of the solutions lack the allure of new vaccines or “magic bullet” engineering solutions.
But, with perseverance and a clear focus on increased funding for simple solutions implemented at the community level by experienced organizations, the payoff in saved lives and reduced suffering is on a scale comparable to philanthropy’s greatest and most celebrated successes.
Mark Van Putten is president of ConservationStrategy, which consults with Water Advocates, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides pro-bono consulting services to leaders of corporations, foundations, and civic and faith-based organizations looking to increase their support for worldwide access to safe, affordable and sustainable drinking water and sanitation.