Sustainable Water for All: Lessons in Hydrophilanthropy

Back to Winter 2011 Newsletter

By Stephan Elizander Przybylowicz
WRRC Graduate Assistant Outreach

“The next time you see an ad for a water charity featuringa cute, dark-skinned child and a deep-voiced announcer who says, ‘Last year, we drilled 50 wells in Terra Buena and one was in Rosa’s village,’ you need to ask, ‘How many of those wells are still working?’”
—Michael Campana, hydrophilanthropy pioneer

The field of hydrophilanthropy has been around for decades, although the term is fairly new. Hydrophilanthropy means different things to different people, depending on which end of the deal they are on. David Kreamer (who coined the term) promotes “a flexible, open minded approach to the description of hydrophilanthropy and its attributes, a definition that includes many diverse activities and practitioners who advance the sustainability of clean water in the world.”

Some may see hydrophilanthropists as volunteers traveling across the world to provide clean water for poor underdeveloped countries. Alternatively, they may be seen as a group of outsiders coming into a community with empty promises of progress, while the community is left with the vestiges of failed projects and crushed dreams. The reality is that both of these viewpoints are historically true, but hydrophilanthropists are beginning to take a closer look at the way things have been done in the past to promote sustainable water use for the future.

According to a recent United Nations report, approximately half of the world’s population has inadequate sanitation. SAIWI (a student water group from UNLV) states that “Water, health, and poverty are inextricably linked.” This means that providing clean water to people can ultimately help them escape the cycle of poverty and reduce illness. Furthermore, studies have shown that in places without readily accessible water, women and girls can spend up to eight hours per day collecting it. This can lead to severe health problems and take them away from education or performing other household or business activities.

A year ago, the UA chapter of Engineers without Borders was finishing up a water filtration project in Ghana. This year, the team is working in Mali, West Africa, on a project to increase a community’s potable water supply. The people of Mandoli, Mali, have a water pump from a previous hydrophilanthropy organization, but it has broken and been useless since. Mandoli lies in a dry area bordering the Saharan desert and has a 9-month dry season, so having enough food and water is always a challenge. In addition to fixing the local water pump, the UA-EWB group is also working on implementing various rainwater harvesting techniques in the region in order to increase the amount of water available. To ensure sustainability, they are using a multi-pronged approach that includes (1) developing and delivering educational resources focusing on issues of water, sanitation, and health specific to the community; (2) improving the quality of existing water sources for drinking purposes; and (3) developing sustainable alternatives to increasing water supply.

There are several pitfalls that may cause a project to fail. Shortterm visits may provide excellent student experience, but leave the community with unfinished technology or little education on how to use it effectively. Lack of coordination with local organizations may lead to diminished upkeep once the original volunteers have left. New water technology is useless if it breaks down and no one has the knowledge or resources to fix it. Also, the donation of free labor and materials may lead to a greedy atmosphere, where community members expect everything to be given to them without any work on their part.

On the flip side, successful projects tend to share some of these five important characteristics:

  1. Local Partnerships: Partnerships with local communities and established organizations help ensure timely completion of the project and sustainability after the visiting group has left. Fund-matching by local governments also helps ensure the project will be maintained.
  2. Community Involvement: The local community should be required to make an investment in the project in order to become self-reliant for the future.
  3. Education: Installing new technology is a good start, but communities must be trained in proper hygiene techniques (handwashing, toilet use, etc) in order for the technology to be effective. Community members must also be trained in the repair and maintenance of the technology.
  4. Simple Local Technology: The technology used should be as simple as possible so that it can be maintained and repaired by local communities using local resources. Tools and parts should be low-cost and easily available to the community.
  5. Monitoring and Evaluation: Visiting groups should make longterm commitments, not short-term visits. Also, the success of the project should be measured by how many years the technology

continues to work, not just how many people have access to clean water.

One of the biggest issues in hydrophilanthropy today is that there are several groups working in different countries around the world, but they do not talk to each other. At the recent Arizona Hydrological Society Symposium, David Kreamer proposed an online clearinghouse of hydrophilanthropy groups, sorted by geographic area of work. This would allow groups working in the same area to pool resources and learn from one another. This idea is still in the planning phase and would require funding, hosting, and maintenance in order to become a reality.

Want to get involved? No matter what your affiliation, there is a group for you! If you are a student, check out the Engineers without Borders USA, UA Student Chapter. If you are faculty, consider mentoring the student group. If you are a professional, look into the Southern Arizona chapter of Engineers without Borders USA. Also, the organization Water for People hosts the World Water Corps, which is open to anyone.

Most groups require members to raise their own money for trips, but the benefits of volunteering far outweigh the cost. In addition to the good feeling of helping fellow humans, you also get to travel, meet new people, appreciate different ways of life, and learn to be flexible while practicing collaborative problem solving.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
—African proverb

Everyone can support international water work by researching organizational models and choosing to fund or volunteer for projects that will provide sustainable water for at least five years after implementation.