The Ripple Effect: Clean Water Programs that Promote Long-Term Behavior Change

Ripple effect panel

By Meaghan Bogart

Today, 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water and a simple toilet. Despite international attention and action around this issue, 35-50% of water projects fail within the first 5 years. In order to share a greater understanding around world water inequalities and the complexity in developing sustainable change, Global Washington hosted a panel event highlighting three organizations that are on the front lines.

The panel consisted of Charlie Matlock, the CEO and co-founder of PotaVida, Marla Smith-Nilson, the founder and executive director of Water1st, and Eric Stowe, the founder and director of Splash. Patty Russel, the managing director for FSG moderated the event. The discussion centered on how well-designed programs can create a ripple effect for larger impact.

The conversation opened around the idea of behavioral changes.  PotaVida, Water1st, and Splash work to implement water purifiers, hand washing stations, and clean toilets, as well as to promote good hygiene practices. The biggest challenge all three panelists agreed on was the shift in behavior needed in order to make their products and interventions successful and long-lasting.

If behavioral norms are seen as the challenge, than how can transformation occur? The panel noted a few successful strategies in promoting change: a focus on youth for a generational change, dedicated program follow-up, and in the case of PotaVida, securing up to the minute data from the field, which can let both donors and practitioners know how products are being used.

Eric Stowe from Splash argued that social and neurological studies analyzing habits and tendencies are just as important in encouraging hygienic use of clean water as the engineers developing the products.

Marla from Water1st stressed the importance of having locally-initiated programs. Water1st, for example, works directly with local organizations, asking them what they’d like to change about their current water systems.

Splash, PotaVida, and Water1st all make themselves accountable to the communities they serve.  For example, PotaVida collects data from their solar water purifiers on the frequency of use. This not only helps PotaVida engineers create the best possible product, but it also allows the in-country team to know how they can help their clients adapt to the technology.

One finding that PotaVida’s partners have gleaned from the data is that the water purifiers are often not used right away. Instead, having staff make return visits resulted in more successful use of the devices.

All three panelists agreed that creating the “ripple effect” of positive changes is difficult, and includes its own set of obstacles in any given area. Splash believes that youth are often the key to successful behavior shifts. PotaVida uses data and research to support change, both at the field level and in donor understanding. And finally, Water1st supports locally-driven efforts for lasting change.

All three organizations are creating their positive ripple effects in the communities that they serve.  Providing access to clean water and education on hygiene is difficult, and despite numerous organizations working to help solve the issue, there is still much to be done.