Water & Sanitation

Water Thinking

The Peer Water Exchange manages diverse solutions and resources to fight the global water crisis.

(Illustration by Angus Greig) 

The facts on water point to a universally acknowledged crisis: More than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water; 6,000 children under age 5 die every day from water-related diseases; half the world’s hospital beds are filled because of water-related diseases; and 2.7 billion people lack access to hygienic sanitation facilities that prevent contamination and provide dignity.

There is no dearth of technological solutions to this tragedy. Yet successful projects to solve rural water problems require approaches other than technology—community organization, education, behavior change, ownership transfer, and long-term monitoring. These approaches, although necessary, create a complexity that has hampered our ability to take any solution to scale. Even with billions of dollars of funding over decades, we have not been able to reduce the size of the water crisis.

But the drinking water crisis can be solved. The Peer Water Exchange (PWX)—a technology platform I conceived and built for Blue Planet Network (BPN, formerly Blue Planet Run Foundation, or BPRF)—has used a network approach to manage diverse solutions to and resources for the global water crisis. PWX is a decentralized network and decision-making system that can effectively and transparently scale up the management of thousands of projects without a bureaucracy. Over the past six years, 73 small and large organizations around the world have proved that the PWX platform works.

We are small now, but our goal is ambitious: By 2027, we aim to provide safe drinking water to 200 million people. This will require $8.5 billion in funding and the management of 200,000 projects over 20 years.


To resolve the water crisis successfully, we need a healthy dose of criticism about current funding models and the disadvantages they create for solving social issues.

Management in the North: Foundations and NGOs are experts at raising money, but they find it hard to oversee small remote projects. BPRF was able to create a new global athletic event to build awareness of the water crisis, but managing projects in 14 countries was a challenge with no easy solution. Although I was a funder, was I really the right person to decide on projects? Wouldn’t using existing field expertise result in better decisions?

Fundraising in the South: Implementers are experts in their fields, but they spend significant time on fundraising and managing donors and donor agencies. A large fraction of energy can be spent in beautifying an application or report instead of executing a project.

Reporting: Funding agencies spend time and resources on reporting, which often involves repackaging reports from the field. Raw data are hidden, and only a tiny fraction of activity is reported.

Failures and learning: The entire philanthropic chain reports only good things and is unwilling to share mistakes, so no one learns from them.

Monitoring: Site visits are often a photo op and usually expensive. At BPN, we constantly balance the cost of travel with the cost of funding another project. Monitoring can and should be a learning, sharing, and teaching experience.

Cooperation and sharing: Implementers do not cooperate or share enough. They compete for resources and funding, which results in North-South communication instead of South-South dialogue.

All the points above contribute to the main problem with today’s practices: lack of scalability. Even if we increased investment in the water sector using the current model, not all the money can be absorbed and put to effective use. We need a new approach, one that is scalable, efficient, and collaborative, combining transparency with effectiveness—one that attracts the vast investment commitment that this crisis demands.


The core problem when we look at the water crisis is the lens through which we structure it, which I call Vaccine Thinking. This lens has developed over centuries as a result of a string of scientific and industrial successes. It has culminated in a mindset that is now deeply ingrained in our psyche and completely integrated with our educational, economic, and governmental systems. Vaccine Thinking seeks to find and deploy a single universal solution, a solution that can be mass-produced. It is used in projects to provide village-level electricity and in efforts like One Laptop per Child. But Vaccine Thinking has been unable to solve problems such as the water crisis, poverty, and climate change.

To address the water challenge we need to use a different lens—one that allows us to structure the problem differently, to examine many diverse and partial answers and processes, and to set up new expectations of results. The water crisis does not have a universal solution. There are many solutions, and they all involve a behavior change to deliver results. To deploy diverse solutions we need a new mindset, one I call Water Thinking.

Vaccine Thinking differs from Water Thinking as follows:

Dosage: Vaccine Thinking creates a one-time solution, a single dose, or projects involving a single set of transactions. Water Thinking creates a lifetime supply, requiring many different transactions, including preparatory and follow-up.

Point of impact: One cannot give water, unlike vaccines, to people. It has to be delivered to households or communities. Administering community-level solutions requires going to the site, bringing people together, and coordinating activities.

Solution type: Vaccines are universal—the same vaccine applies to all genders, ages, and races. Solutions to water supplies, especially in rural areas, are localized in climate, geography, culture, gender relations, and political structure.

Knowledge transfer: Vaccines involve no transfer of knowledge about how the vaccine works or how it was developed. Successful solutions for water in rural areas require knowledge transfer. Why water purity is important and how to establish a good source of water and keep it clean are questions whose answers need to be ingrained into a population as part of any water project.

Ownership transfer: Vaccines involve no transfer of ownership. Solutions to rural water problems need to be owned by the community for long-term success. In fact, if the community is not organized or does not desire to be self-sufficient, solutions are bound to fail.

Changes in behavior: Vaccine-based cures require no change in behavior. Social problems demand many changes in behavior. Water solutions need changes in water usage, hygiene, sanitation practices, and protection of the water supply.

Metrics: The metrics along the vaccination process can be captured easily. Solutions to water are very hard to quantify. For example, diarrhea rates are unlikely to go to zero immediately after the implementation of a project, but will produce good trends over time, often with spikes that may contradict progress.

Risks and failures: Our society accepts the risks and failures involved in creating a vaccine. We have the patience to keep funding cures for AIDS, cancers, and other diseases. Yet with small water projects we are very risk averse and respond negatively to failures. This drives behaviors that often misrepresent results, or focus on the successes only, both of which lead to the loss of much learning.

Funding and project size: For vaccines, we are able to centralize our funding. For social development projects in rural areas, the money has to be delivered in small chunks, something large institutions are not equipped to do. The management of thousands of small projects is one of the challenges of scale and requires us to think differently from our large funding mentality.


The Peer Water Exchange was deployed in 2006 to tackle today’s unscalable funding approach and apply Water Thinking. We have been using the Internet, especially Web 2.0 technologies, to manage projects in a way that minimizes bureaucracy, increases transparency, enables collaboration, improves effectiveness, and delivers results efficiently. Just as eBay and Craigslist do not deliver the same products to all consumers, but allow millions of different transactions, we do not manage projects with one approach or template. We also manage and coordinate interactions before, during, and after project implementation.

In PWX, work is assigned to leverage core competencies. Investors are in charge of fundraising and can focus on systemic issues. They evaluate proposals, seek and study trends, and act on them. Implementers—experts in their field—review each other’s standardized applications for funds, instead of spending time applying for funds. Reviewers, who are other applicants, funders, or third parties, can critique the approach, ask questions, and offer suggestions. We see this happen repeatedly: Reviewers want to share their experience and help others succeed. Collaboration and learning are part of the process. Independent third parties can participate to observe and monitor projects.

PWX has been using Web 2.0 models of social and collaborative knowledge development networks for six years now. The network has grown through referrals; as more organizations join PWX, more resources are added to manage more work, and collaboration increases along with the knowledge base. Last year we introduced a set of business intelligence software tools for the water sector.

PWX continues to evolve. It is currently the only scalable, map-driven, and completely transparent platform in the water sector, as well as the only participatory decision-making system where applicants weigh in on funding decisions. The next step is to build out the first social development exchange—where all transactions are tracked, knowledge is disseminated, and people come together to solve global crises.

Water Thinking and PWX can tackle and solve the water crisis. My hope is that it also will energize society by showing that collective action is a way to solve many of our social problems.

Rajesh Shah is a founding member of the Blue Planet Network and the designer and leader of the Peer Water Exchange. He has more than 25 years of experience in strategy and technology consulting, finance, and operations, in nonprofits, startups, and for-profits.

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  • BY Linda Qian, Intel Corporation

    ON August 19, 2011 11:39 AM

    Nice article - it’s very helpful to understand the different solution frameworks. Do you have any suggestions on how corporations can get involved in this space?

  • BY T.J. Cook, HiDef Web Solutions

    ON September 8, 2011 01:59 PM

    Rajesh, This a timely and inspiring article. I agree wholeheartedly with the big Next Step you outline in the article: “the first social development exchange.” Now that there is a fully-transparent platform, it’s time to allow everyone to participate in it—whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they do—because this problem is going to take everyone to solve. That’s the power of everyone and my hope for the coming iterations of PWX.


  • bragdonsh's avatar

    BY bragdonsh

    ON September 8, 2011 07:00 PM

    Thank you for articulating so beautifully why techno-fixes and linear thinking are not going to solve our deepening and pervasive problems like poverty and hunger.  I had not heard the term “Vaccine Thinking” but it illustrates your point and makes your thinking accessible.  I hope it also spurs a “social development exchange.”  Having worked in the field of development for over 20 years, my sense is people really do want to share experience—failures and successes, but the nature of funding and reporting makes it very difficult.

    One minor point, on knowledge transfer, it might be worth noting that knowledge transfer is not a one-way street.  You rightly note the need for south-south dialogue but the paragraph on knowledge transfer is more unidirectional than I think you intend.

  • Jon Edwards's avatar

    BY Jon Edwards

    ON September 9, 2011 05:34 AM

    Thanks Rajesh.  Some useful thoughts.  Knowledge transfers - each way - are crucial but the key from my experience is ownership (not sure about transfer here). Too much emphasis has been on spending and hardware and not enough on helping communities identify solutions and mobilise their own assets and resources to implement them, matched with external resources where necessary.

  • BY Elizabeth Kronoff, Insaan Group

    ON September 9, 2011 09:18 PM

    I love the articles that detail a specific solution to a problem.

    A few questions. First, are you familiar with NGOs that do in fact manage hundreds of water projects, not only nationally but worldwide? Although some of these may have been proven unsustainable (after five, ten, or fifteen years), others have not. With just five years under its belt, how can PWX compare itself in terms of sustainability? After five or ten years, if people are still using it like the water committees Oxfam helped mobilize 20 years ago (which are in many cases still working), then we can really say it’s working.

    Second, a lot of people believe that ultimately, as a natural resource, water should be publicly owned but sold to private citizens, if necessary through private enterprises that bid for management. You know, like we do in most wealthy countries and many middle-income and poorer countries. This is hotly debated, but it is also massively important. Forgive me if I missed it, but how does PWX address that?

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking article. I look forward to hearing more from your group.

  • BY Rajesh Shah

    ON September 14, 2011 10:48 AM

    @Linda, corporations can help the transformation. They are used to experimenting with new approaches and learning from failures. They should showcase their philanthropic results, including failures and support the ‘failures’ to become learnings and to help fix them.

    Their CSR programs should go beyond getting a photo/blurb for the annual report but ‘invest’ in projects for the long-term, insist on getting info on the long-term sustainability of projects.

    Their employees can become ‘citizen reporters’ as they go traveling and provide valuable independent reports on projects, even if not funded by the their corporation - the network effect.

  • BY Rajesh Shah

    ON September 14, 2011 10:53 AM

    @T.J. - thank you!

    @bragdonsh - you are right, not much space in two pages to mention that year after year, every peer review humbles me as a richness of knowledge and experience comes out of the remote areas, not to mention a passion and dedication.

    All civilizations had ways to handle and preserve water, some of that knowledge is still available if we hunt for it.

  • BY Rajesh Shah

    ON September 14, 2011 10:58 AM

    @Jon, you are so right. I just returned from Sierra Leone where in a year plus several communities have managed to have every household construct a toilet themselves - out of local materials only. And ensure that nobody goes ‘kaka’ elsewhere. Amazingly successful ownership of the problem and solution..

    However, at the end they did not feel empowered, do not feel that now they can address any problem. So a solution has to include empowerment somehow too.

  • BY Rajesh Shah, Peer Water Exchange

    ON September 14, 2011 11:10 AM

    @Elizabeth, thank you for the questions.

    First, PWX is not an implementer. It is trying to change how implementers and funders work. You are right, many organizations have been working for decades and have many successful implementations. However, the failures are hidden and not a source for learning or showing what the system-wide reality is. Ask a chess player if they learn and improve more from games they win or lose. PWX keeps projects alive along with the application (the plan). They can be visited and reported on by anyone, the implementer, current PWX members, and random visitors. So we will know what’s happening in the field, which projects to revisit, what to fix, and what learnings are out there. We put all projects, not just successful ones on the map and its taken a few years for our partners to trust us and each other and start reporting their non-flagship projects.

    Regarding your second question about the privatization debate, PWX is a platform on which philanthropic, gov’t, and private projects can be placed. Only with transparency, collaboration, and long-term results, will the debate get resolved. I also believe, that there is not one solution or approach that will work globally.

  • Scott Coburn's avatar

    BY Scott Coburn

    ON October 3, 2011 02:44 PM

    Dear Mr. Shah,
    I am done with a 30 year career as Architect & Developer. 
    No more concrete/steel/glass…no more buildings.  We need more nature, parks, and water. 
    I want to work in conservation and preservation of our water for the rest of my life. 
    I have vast education, experience, expertise and excitement. 
    Can I help PWX or BWN ? Thank you.
    Scott Coburn

  • BY Rajesh Shah, Peer Water Exchange

    ON October 19, 2011 04:57 AM

    Dear Mr. Coburn,

    We would love to find a way to utilize your experience and excitement.
    The best way might be via email/phone and you can use the contact info on our website to reach us:


  • BY Joost Notenboom, Cycle for Water

    ON November 27, 2011 03:20 AM

    Dear Mr. Shah,

    Great analysis on the biggest crisis we face in this 21st century. I agree wholeheartedly with you that this global crisis requires in fact many different local considerations. Watersheds are different in different places, and so are communities and their social and cultural qualities. About a year ago we (me and my buddy Michiel) spoke at Stanford about some of these issues. We were then (and still are) en route down to Ushuaia, Argentina; cycling the entire 30.000 kilometers on our bamboo bicycles and learning about different freshwater issues. We’ve been visiting many different projects dealing with access to clean drinking water, pollution of water resources, effects of climate change, effects of mining and urbanization, and many more; filing reports and sharing what we learn with a global audience. The main thing that has stood out so far is that communities themselves need to be included in the solution, and that when they do have that sense of ownership, that is a beautiful thing to see.

    Thank you again for sharing your insights!

  • BY Sandeep Srivastava

    ON February 2, 2012 03:04 AM

    Rajesh Ji. lt is well written article.You peeled development sector with great observation . At least, I can say in context of India. Keep writing .

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