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Know thy water system

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

rainheartI live in Atlanta, and we’ve had a bit more than our share of rain this year.  By July of this year we’d already had 45.8 inches, and the 30-year annual average is 49.71 inches.

Yes, the rain has put a damper on summer activities (and has been a problem for farmers). But all the complaints I hear and see on Facebook make me wonder if my fellow Atlantans (who are not farmers) know where our drinking water comes from. In Georgia, the primary source of city drinking water is surface water (lakes and rivers), so we should appreciate the rain.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we had a long drought. The main response of the Governor of Georgia was to pray for rain. (Surprisingly, governors of other states – Texas and Oklahoma – have recently used this tactic as well. Seriously. Google it.)

Why don’t many people understand where our drinking water comes from before the tap and how it gets to us? Probably because it is so reliable, safe, and cheap.

I was reminded of this lack of knowledge recently when I was talking to a colleague.  He said that many folks don’t understand how our own water systems work, never mind the role of the government and the private sector in providing our drinking water. So when we talk to some donors about the need to work with governments to make services sustainable, their eyes glaze over.  Our own government doesn’t seem to understand water (see above), and we know that governments move slowly.  It is thus understandable that American donors generally like a quick, visible fix. It’s more satisfying to fund, or build with their own hands, a well. Or to buy a water filter.

This is directly relevant to our work at Improve International, and the rest of the water sector.  If those of us with safe, reliable, cheap water don’t know how we get it or how we keep it, how will we ever understand – or help donors to understand – how to help make water services work, and keep working, in developing countries?

As my friend Marla Smith-Nilson describes it in a recent op-ed

…[T]o raise funds there is a temptation to over-simplify problems and solutions. In today’s information-saturated world we have less than two seconds to make an impression on a potential donor who visits our website. That leaves little room for telling the whole story, which takes longer than two seconds and doesn’t always help us raise funds.

So should we let ignorance and a desire for simplicity be the enemy of sustainable water services for the poor?  Maybe we can just ask governments to pray for sustainability.

Filed under: Results, Impact, Sharing Tagged: #sustainability, #water, capacity building

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