Clean Water for All: How Well Is Philanthropy Tackling One of the World's Biggest Challenges?

 photo:  Riccardo Mayer/shutterstock

photo:  Riccardo Mayer/shutterstock

The WHO estimates that 2.1 billion people lack access to safe, readily available water at home. This problem, in turn, drives many others—like the deaths every year of hundreds of thousands of children under 5 from diarrheal diseases caused by unsafe water and sanitation. 

Private philanthropy has a long history of working on this issue, and despite frustrations and setbacks, donors remain on the case. Today, World Water Day, is a good time to take stock of how funding for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) has evolved lately. Are there are new funders on the scene? Are grantmakers getting smarter and having more success? And how does WASH fit into the broader landscape of global health and development funding? 

“From a certain angle there actually are a lot of funders, particularly small-scale ones, in the WASH space,” David Douglas, a principal at Global Water 2020, president of the nonprofit Waterlines, and a trustee of Wallace Genetic Foundation, told Inside Philanthropy.

A major challenge, Douglas said, is to get more funders “supporting not infrastructure projects per se, but other, no less critical, areas of WASH funding.” He cited, as examples, investments that lead to in-country grants to indigenous advocacy groups to strengthen deeper political will in a developing country, or support aimed more at long-term sustainability of water projects, many of which fail over time. 

John Oldfield, a principal at Global Water 2020 with a decade of experience in advocacy work for global water security, is also cautiously optimistic. He told Inside Philanthropy that funding for WASH from private and corporate grantmakers “is trending in the right direction, but we need to ramp up both the quantity and the quality of our efforts if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of 100 percent access to WASH.”

Oldfield said he’s seen a shift in how grantmakers in this space think. They are moving away from questions like, “How many wells can we buy for $100,000?” and toward “What sort of lasting impact can we have for $100,000?”

And he said that while the dollar amounts may often be small in relative terms, philanthropy’s role in making headway on WASH can be significant.

“Philanthropists are more flexible and agile than larger multilateral organizations, and are less confined to counting the number of beneficiaries and cost per capita,” Oldfield said. “Thus, they have an opportunity to focus less on hardware and infrastructure, and more on strengthening enabling environments, innovative financial approaches to WASH, and integrating WASH into other development sectors such as health, education, poverty alleviation, and gender equality.”

Another piece of good news: Both Douglas and Oldfield noted how diverse the funders in the WASH space have become.

“There are already a lot of private-sector funders in the space, often below the radar screen,” Douglas said. “There are large ones like Gates, focused on sanitation, and Hilton, focused on water. Then there are the corporate philanthropic arms of Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.”

Related: Keep It Flowing: A Look at a Big Hilton Give for WASH

At the other end of the size spectrum, Douglas said, thousands of churches and Rotary Clubs are involved in individual water projects and are getting “more savvy” about ensuring each project’s sustainability over time.

Douglas said that thanks to Americans’ generosity, there is a lot of small-dollar funding going into the WASH space abroad, but it’s difficult to quantify.

What hasn’t happened, though, is the emergence of a new crop of major WASH funders—for example, from the ranks of the Silicon Valley winners now turning to philanthropy. At Inside Philanthropy, we’ve written about at least one celebrity donor who’s embraced this issue—Matt Damon—and about a few wealthy givers who’ve supported charity:water, like Michael Birch and Jack Dorsey. Otherwise, though, there’s not a lot of action in this vital space, even as new donors have flocked to other niches related to global health and development, like curbing malaria.

There are reasons that donors are often hesitant to take on WASH.

“Water is an attractive issue for funders, but it is proving challenging to significantly increase the quality of that funding,” Oldfield said. “Sustainable water solutions often require long timelines and a concerted focus on governance, finance, and institutional capacity building.”

Douglas said that one major challenge was how incomprehensible it was to many funders in the United States, where the average per-person daily water use is 85 gallons, that so many of the world’s people don’t have access to water.

One frustrating thing, Douglas said, was that many funders of global health are dealing with the consequences of poor water and sanitation—even as they ignore the underlying causes. They lean “toward investing in treatment of WASH-related diseases rather than prevention of WASH-related diseases.”

Against this backdrop, where could more WASH funding or new approaches make a difference? 

Reaching remote communities and disadvantaged subgroups is one challenge, Oldfield said. “Donors might be able to reach a working family in a suburb of a large African city relatively easily. But what about that young girl living with a physical or intellectual disability in a poor, rural community of subsistence farmers in Central America?”

Oldfield said helping hard-to-reach populations will require a more concerted effort, smarter grantmaking, closer relationships with local governments, and likely an extended timeline and more financial and technical support in the short to medium term.

“It is not easy to reach the final few hundred million people, but that is the most important gap,” he said.

A more specific funding gap, this one singled out by Douglas, is to address the fact that many healthcare facilities in poor countries lack clean water and sanitation—an unthinkable situation in advanced countries.  

“American donors would have a hard time finding better value for their investments than contributing to the growing effort to improve access to WASH at hospitals and clinics in developing countries,” Douglas said. “The situation is grave... and the problem has slipped through the cracks of world attention until recently.”

Douglas said he didn’t know of any more “serious and solvable” global health problem that was awaiting increased donor attention.  

At the end of the day, how much rides on better approaches to WASH funding, and more efforts to fill these gaps? Douglas said that poor WASH conditions cause more than 20 diseases and an estimated 80 percent of illnesses in developing countries, including typhoid, cholera, dysentery, trachoma and schistosomiasis. That says it all.

It’s encouraging that, as of this World Water Day, some things have improved in the WASH funding space. But there is still a long way to go. And in a world where just 2,200 billionaires are sitting on assets of $9 trillion, one thing is clear: there's no shortage of wealth that could be put to work to ensure that all of humanity has access to safe water.