Is This the Big Solution to Failing WASH Projects We've Been Waiting For?

Water and sanitation projects often go something like this: NGOs show up with equipment, money, and people on hand, drill a well or install sanitation systems and then leave. A handful of locals are typically trained on upkeep and minor infrastructure repairs, but this isn’t always the case. If the wells need to be repointed or major leaks or breaks occur in the pipes, the communities are out of luck. As a result of the dig-and-dash approach, well-meaning projects end up abandoned and communities go back to contaminated water, which can lead to enteric illness and death, as well as economic setbacks.

The setbacks hit women and girls particularly hard, since they are the ones spending hours fetching water. Instead of spending their time on empowering pursuits like education and earning income, women and girls spend their days on the hunt for water.  

The failure of WASH projects in developing countries isn’t a small issue. According to the Water Collective (which goes around the world attempting to fix these failed systems), an estimated 40 percent of water points are broken in developing countries at any given time and over half of water projects around the world fail due to lack of community involvement.

So has the international development world simply been ignoring the problem? No, but they have been a bit slow on the uptake.

The good news is that things are looking up on this front, as signs point to increased interest in solving the failing WASH infrastructure problems through social enterprise. Money, after all, motivates.

Water for Women recently released a report showcasing how water social enterprises can be an effective tool to increase local employment and encourage the reinvestment of profits into the upkeep and maintenance of WASH projects. The concept is simple, really: Water centers pump and sell water alongside food and other household items. The owners of these centers turn a profit and some of that money is reinvested to keep the water centers operational.

Of course, some NGO are already down with this line of thinking. Wateraid has been taking the social enterprise approach for years, noting, “investing in social enterprises specifically helps to ensure sustainability of services, because they know how to keep the books, how to maintain facilities and how to communicate with customers.”

The same goes for the Hilton Foundation, which revamped its WASH grantmaking to ensure that water systems are fully functioning, upgraded as necessary, and sustainable. Hilton plans to maintain this strategy through market-based or subsidized systems.

WASH funding favorite, which receives a lot of support from the likes of the Caterpillar and Hilton foundations for its WaterCredit program, focuses on maintenance and repair from the start.

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Social enterprise or other market-based approaches to WASH are relatively new to the water scene, but some organizations, like NextDrop, are gaining steam. Our best guess is that we’ll be seeing an increase in funders and NGOs abandoning traditional WASH strategies in favor for a social enterprise approach.  

In turn, this relates to the broader current trend toward impact investing, both by foundations and new players coming on the scene. If social enterprise WASH projects continue to show promise, and major new capital flows to these projectsI mean, businessesthat could be a game changer for the sector, and for millions who now lack access to clean water and sanitation.