a great success story you never heard of

May 18 2015

I’d like to share a great success story involving a problem (and solution) you probably have never heard of.

First, some background. Most people I know (at least those who live in the US) never give a moment’s thought about their access to a basic resource: clean water. For them, it’s abundant, cheap, and safe to drink.

That’s not the case in many other parts of the world. Millions of people do NOT have a reliable source of safe water, despite charities and foundations spending huge sums attempting to solve this problem. When their solutions don’t work, there’s often a common cause: they may be based on technology that is inappropriate or unsustainable outside the developed world, and they often ignore or don’t understand the social and economic context in which they’re going to be used. Thus, a new well and pump may provide water to a village for a while, until the pump breaks, and nobody is responsible for fixing it, and nobody knows how or has access to the parts and tools they would need.

Under these circumstances, solutions that work have some common characteristics: the technology is relatively simple and cheap to build, use and maintain. But more importantly, there’s a social and economic structure to support it.

Here’s a great example of that kind of technology: biosand water filters. They’re simple, yet clever, in design, using mostly concrete, gravel and sand. They are a proven, effective way to help solve the problem of providing sustainable, affordable access to clean, safe water. If you google the term, or go to the Wikipedia article about them, you’ll get a basic idea of how they work. The technology has been adopted in many parts of the developing world, but the technology by itself is not enough.

Here’s the success story you never heard of: Haiti is the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere, and reliable access to all of the resources that people in the developed world take for granted (safe shelter, healthy food, medical care, and clean water) are beyond the reach of much of its population. The problems are deeply systemic, but a great place to start solving them is to support access to clean water. This is a prerequisite to health, which in turn is a prerequisite to being educated and employable. Many organizations in Haiti have been working on this cluster of problems, but one in particular has had remarkable success for nearly 15 years: Clean Water for Haiti (google that phrase, and they’re the first non-ad driven result). They have delivered nearly 20,000 filters, developed improvements to the design, and most importantly, created programs that help make sure the filters are used properly and stay in use. This has improved the lives, and literally saved the lives, of many thousands of Haitians. And there’s a side benefit of providing employment to local people who make and deliver the filters. To me, that’s a real success story.

Paul Jonusaitis
[email protected]
Redmond, Washington, US

PS/disclaimer: I've known Chris and Leslie Rolling, the couple that runs Clean Water for Haiti, for a long time. Great, lovely people who have dedicated their lives to this cause.

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