March 22nd is a noisy day across the water and sanitation sector. It’s World Water Day, and agencies working to end the global water crisis use this day to overwhelm the public, funders, and policymakers with messages related to water. The goals of this advocacy push are to raise awareness, convince people that water is essential for broad social and economic development, and ideally drive people, policymakers, and funders to engage with the water crisis.
The tactics often used on March 22nd (and throughout the year) walk a fine line and highlight real marketing and fundraising tensions among water sector professionals. Unfortunately, it is these tactics that may eventually undermine the cause we all desperately want to address.
Let’s start with the basic “water crisis story” you have inevitably heard many times and will undoubtedly hear again this World Water Day. The story goes something like this: A girl in torn, dirty clothes walks miles and miles to fetch water from a disgustingly polluted water source, treks back with a huge bucket of water on her head, and misses school. Some will add that the girl is under threat from robbers and rapists on this journey, and others will use this foundational story to talk about the health problems the family will face because they drink polluted water.
We all know this story and in truth, many aspects are accurate. I have taken this walk with girls for close to three decades, and it’s a miserable trek. Good friends of my daughters (who were born and raised in rural Africa) do in fact miss a considerable amount of school doing chores such as fetching water. The impact of this tragedy on girls, on families, and on societies as a whole is significant.
This story is generally followed by facts and data that try to bring the wider global crisis into view through the lens of the girl fetching water. You’ve likely heard organizations estimate that 780 million people worldwide lack access to water. Interestingly, there is a debate about this number, with new reports estimating that the figure is closer to 1.8 billion people without access to water. Others look toward the economic case, and point to losses in GDP and productivity directly correlated to poor water supply. Still others will rightly point to the deaths directly attributed to poor water supplies, effecting mostly children.
The story ends, and that’s when we as a sector get lazy. The solution to the water crisis is presented as uncomplicated and cheap. We still peddle simple “projects” as the solution. The equation here is simple:
Girl does not have water + polluted water is bad for health and development = Fund a water pump and her whole life will be changed forever.
It is literally presented that simply by both large and small agencies.
Then we say it will be cheap. The math here is equally straightforward:
Girl does not have water + water is key for economic development and health + project is needed = You pay $25 for a solution.
Claims that “$25 saves a life” ring far and wide despite the clear evidence from annual reports and financial records that $25 does not even remotely cover an organization’s costs to deliver water to a girl, let alone ensure that it lasts for a lifetime.
It’s here that marketing and fundraising cross the barrier from advocacy and education to borderline dishonesty, making it incredibly challenging to communicate and market both the crisis and the real solutions.
The saddest part of each walk I take with a girl collecting water is when we pass not only the school she is not attending, but also a broken water pump. The system was indubitably installed with the best intentions but not the impact promised by the organizations promoting cheap solutions. Getting water supply “right” is a long-term process requiring engagement well beyond laying pipes, installing taps, and taking photos of happy children. These things are important, but there is much more work to do from that point.
Everyone in the sector knows it’s more costly than commonly sold, takes more time than a simple project cycle and a bit of training, and requires a more nuanced yet compelling tale that moves us from the simplistic notion that solving the global water crisis is cheap and easy. Because the one thing we as a sector know is that while this sales pitch is compelling and has kept money flowing to support water supply, it has sadly not kept water flowing. And that is no longer good enough.
The real story for World Water Day is this: If we truly want to get girls in school and give them a chance in life, then we must create an environment where water always flows—not just temporarily, but forever. Water can’t be seen as exceptional; it must be expected. To succeed and ensure that water flows, we must focus not only on infrastructure such as water pumps, but also on ongoing monitoring and regulation, finance, water resources, supply chains, good governance, replacement equipment, and services to expand systems as the need grows.
And, as we all know, $25 can’t cover it.