Behavior Change and Technology: The Keys to Solving Global Water and Sanitation Issues

For people in the developed world, it is difficult to comprehend living without running water or a flush toilet. Even more difficult to understand may be that in some places, having these amenities is not the most feasible, cost-effective or beneficial solution. The need for technological innovation to solve access to clean water and improved sanitation, as well as to ignite behavior change has never been greater, or more promising.

In 2010 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as a human right. Great progress has been made to increase access to clean drinking water, however targets for improved sanitation have fallen short, leaving nearly 700 million people without ways to safely dispose of human waste. In fact, globally 80 percent of wastewater generated by society goes back into water sources untreated, which leaves 1.8 billion people drinking and cooking with water contaminated with feces.

The benefits of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) interventions include improved health and nutrition, school attendance (especially for girls), and overall productivity, with less time spent collecting water. Improved sanitation also contributes to economic development by delivering $5 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Additionally, research demonstrates that designing WASH technology without changing end-user behavior is less likely to succeed. Technologies such as PotaVida’s Smart Solar Purifier, WASH programs implemented by Splash, and community-designed water system with Water1st, are enabling behavior change and ultimately, long-term sustained clean water system in developing countries.

Between 1990 and 2015, 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water, which included piped water connections, public taps, protected wells and boreholes, as well as filtration systems. However, only five to 25 percent of these water purification methods were used correctly. This is why changing behaviors in WASH is so critical. While access to clean water has made greater strides than access to improved sanitation, where 2.4 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities, all areas of WASH need to include behavior change to succeed.

The majority of people lacking improved water and sanitation live in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Southern Asia. While people in urban areas have greater access today, urban areas also need attention. This is why new technologies, especially those that enable behavior are so crucial for WASH interventions, and the development sector is working on innovative and cost-effective ways to test and treat drinking water, as well as develop new methods for assessing safe collection, transport, disposal and reuse of fecal waste along the sanitation chain. There are a number of promising technologies for cleaning drinking water. Engineers are also working to make desalination less expensive by reducing the energy required for the process. Technologies are also being created to improve recycling of wastewater and sewage treatment for irrigation and industrial use, as well as to resupply aquifers.

In addition, technology can help encourage, enable and empower sustainable behavior change around WASH. All WASH practices, even hand washing with soap, require some physical product or technological component, and the design of these can strongly influence their acceptance by communities. Placement is often key, as well as physical characteristics, such as the design of soap containers and water taps.

Here in Washington State there are a number of organizations using technology to reach the Sustainable Development Goals focused on WASH. For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2011, which has now awarded 16 researchers around the world with grants to utilize innovative approaches for the safe and sustainable management of human waste (see one example here). Additionally, The Gates Foundation provides funding to researchers who are developing ways to process and convert waste into products, energy, and fertilizer. Other organizations such as World Concern and Splash (see a list of other organizations below) are also using innovative technology.

While ensuring all people have access to improved water and sanitation will not be easy, the use of new technologies will help create sustainable solutions in places where piped water and flush toilets are not feasible.

A number of Global Washington members work tirelessly to provide access to clean water and improved sanitation. Below are descriptions of just a few of these organizations, highlighting current projects. Learn more about these members and others on GlobalWA’s interactive map.

Esperanza International Foundation: Working in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Esperanza International Foundation serves women, the material poor and the socially marginalized. The Foundation’s water projects allow local churches to purchase professional-grade water filtration systems with Esperanza loan capital, which allows churches to then sell clean drinking water at affordable prices to local community members. These churches then use the profits of their water project to repay their loan, as well as invest in strengthening their communities. New access to clean water has played a major role in reducing the number of water borne illnesses and gastrointestinal problems these communities face, providing them with better overall health.

Etta Projects: Etta Projects collaborates with communities, creating sustainable solutions to improve health, sanitation and clean water. The organization’s safe water and sanitation projects include building water distribution systems in rural communities, building water purification systems in per-urban communities using filtration, as well as building dry composting latrines and grey water filtration systems. Etta Projects also offers hygiene, sanitation and disease prevention training and education, working with locally appointed villagers to become health, sanitation and rights promoters.

Global Good: Global Good combines Intellectual Venture’s unique invention prowess with the expertise of leading humanitarian organizations, forward-looking governments, and commercial partners that share our vision. Together, we invent, develop, and deploy commercially-viable technologies that improve life in developing countries. With the goal of enabling millions of smallholder farmers to grow crops and keep their families going through dry seasons and drought, Global Good is working with various NGOs and other partners to explore the efficiency and other characteristics of inexpensive solar-powered water pumps, with the aim of making such starter pumps more available to the millions of farmers who are attempting to produce food over groundwater they currently cannot reach.

The Living Earth Institute:  The Living Earth Institute (LEI) works to empower communities to protect their health and environment through sustainable water use, with the primary goals of ensuring clean water supply and improved sanitation. LEI adapts water projects to the needs of the community with projects ranging from building family composting toilets and community water wells in Nepal, to pursuing earthquake rebuild partnerships. LEI has also created drinking water, rainwater catchment and hand washing stations in developing communities in other parts of the world.

MSR Global Health: MSR Global Health is focused on improving access to basic human needs for people living in low- resource settings around the globe. MSR Global Health believes the same trusted engineering that creates gear for challenging outdoor environments can find solutions to help these communities gain greater access to safe water, food and shelter.

PotaVida: PotaVida enables aid organizations to make better decisions by collecting accurate data from the field in real time and distilling it into actionable insights. To realize this, PotaVida creates technical solutions that work, are simple to use, and result in dramatic benefit to people in need. The company’s first product, the Smart Solar Purifier, disinfects water using just sunlight for household use in disaster relief and refugee contexts. In addition to providing safe drinking water at a dramatically lower cost, every Smart Solar Purifier records its own usage data. This data is downloaded to mobile devices to provide instantaneous feedback in the field, and is also synced in the cloud, analyzed at the program level, and sent to decision makers.

Splash: Splash is a nonprofit enterprise focused on clean water, clean hands and clean toilets for children living in urban poverty across Asia and Africa. It implements water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in child-serving institutions, including schools, hospitals, shelters and orphanages, in order to reach the greatest number of children cost-effectively and to bring about generational change. Splash’s holistic approach to WASH includes high-quality water filtration systems, durable drinking and hand washing stations, toilet renovations, and hygiene clubs to ensure that kids learn healthy habits like handwashing.  To date, Splash is managing 1,552 international projects and serving safe drinking water to over 398,000 children every day in eight countries (China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam). In nine years of operation, Splash’s global project success rate is 99.5%.

Water1st International: Water1st prides itself on funding sustainable water projects that involve local communities, local women, as well as a consistent funding stream. Since its founding in 2005, Water1st has provided clean water to over 160,000 people. While its projects focus on providing easy access to clean water, the organization also ensures that projects integrate toilets and hygiene education. Water1st’s success centers on robust program evaluation of each of its funded projects to ensure that deliverables are effective and community needs are met.

World Concern: World Concern is a Christian humanitarian organization that helps lift people out of poverty through activities including microfinance, agriculture, disaster response and small business development. World Concern works in 22 countries, with the goal of transforming the lives of those it touches, leading them on a path to self-sustainability. As an organization, World Concern aims to be transparent and effective in how it helps. Various staff members from the organization’s U.S. headquarters and in the field contribute to this blog, keeping the public informed of the ways World Concern is offering hope to six million people worldwide.

World Vision: World Vision is the leading NGO provider of clean drinking water, reaching one new person every 30 seconds. Focusing on the rural, ultra-poor, combining access to clean water with sanitation and hygiene interventions and engaging communities in sustainability efforts, World Vision and its partners are committed to expanding their reach to one new person every 10 seconds with clean water and sanitation by 2020. With the use of right-sized equipment, appropriate water sources, manual drilling, mechanized wells with solar pumps and over 500 WASH professionals who live and work in the communities where they lead efforts, nearly 80 percent of World Vision wells continue to function at a high level after 20 years.