Failing Fast Forward: Learning to Build Water Systems that Last

By Joanne Lu

hands water

Photo Credit: @R_Tee via Twenty20

For decades, we’ve heard that access to clean water changes everything. Not only does it improve the health of entire communities, it also gives women freedom to earn an income and children time to go to school, when they don’t have to spend hours walking miles every day just to gather water. That’s why global progress has been rightly celebrated: Between 2000 and 2015, 1.6 billion people gained access to clean water for the first time.

Clean water and sanitationBut according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as much as 30 to 50 percent of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects fail after just two to five years, leaving recipients of the new wells, toilets or other projects back where they started – even worse off sometimes. This has led to calls for the WASH sector to be more upfront about failures and understanding what went wrong. Without learning from mistakes, we will miss the mark on Sustainable Development Goal 6: to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

There are many reasons why water projects fail. But Kirk Anderson, director of international programs at Water1st, says the failure rate is not unique to the WASH sector. In fact, he says that most development efforts suffer problems with sustainability, simply because of the nature of aid.

In a market system, when buyers do not purchase faulty, poor or unwanted products, manufacturers quickly get the message that they need to either improve their product or go out of business. But in a donor system, the users are not the buyers. Therefore, unless the buyers (development organizations, in this case) are regularly asking the users for feedback – and the users are willing to give honest feedback about the gift they received – buyers often continue to fund and implement faulty, poor or unwanted programs.

Pit latrines are a great example of this. For countries like India that are making a strong push to eliminate defecation in open spaces, installing a pit latrine is a cheap and easy way to mark off another community as having access to sanitation. But pit latrines can smell so bad that many sit unused after just a few months. And once a pit latrine is full, who’s going to empty it?

Similarly, some clean water projects are simply insufficient. Water1st’s Founder and Executive Director Marla Smith-Nilson once wrote about how she visited the site of a sealed spring-water catchment chamber in Ethiopia that was supposed to be an “improved water source.” Yes, the catchment was a good way to protect the clean spring water, but the spring itself didn’t provide enough water throughout the year for the community. In additional, the water point wasn’t conveniently located for everyone in the community, which meant that some people still had to walk hours to get there. Then, they had to wait in line for several more hours, because the water trickled so slowly.

On the other hand, rain catchment systems – like the ones Hands for Peacemaking Foundation is installing in Guatemala – collect enough water during the rainy seasons to last households and communities throughout the dry seasons, without them having to walk hours to access it.

To make collected water safe for drinking, some organizations like Friendly Water for the World are teaching groups of people how to make Biosand Water Filters and set up businesses to sell them. The filters are essentially large buckets filled with layers of “specially selected and washed sand and gravel” that remove pathogens and suspended solids. Microorganisms in the sand can remove up to 99 percent of the pathogens. Up to 95 percent of dirt and metals and 100 percent of worms are also removed during the slow filtration process, according to Friendly Water for the World. The technology comes from the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST), a Canadian non-profit and licensed engineering firm. According to Friendly Water for the World, the greatest challenge is not the technology itself, but the social dimension – introducing the approach to communities and encouraging them to use it consistently.

The high failure rate of water projects is also often attributed to a lack of monitoring. The World Bank has estimated that less than 5 percent of water projects are visited after they’re constructed, and less than 1 percent are monitored long-term. This means that most organizations are unaware – or willfully ignorant – when a project breaks or sits unused. Many water systems are feats of engineering that need to be properly maintained, yet in many cases, no one has been trained on how to maintain the system, or spare parts are not readily available to fix it.

That’s why WaterAid, Water1st and others have centered their strategies on local sustainability. With strong input from local partners, these organizations first tackle the technical sustainability of their projects: Is the system easy to use and maintain? Can the technology be used anywhere in the world? Are the spare parts affordable and available locally?

Then, they also set up the local communities to keep the projects running. WaterAid works closely with local governments, as befits its belief that ultimately, it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that all of their citizens have access to water and sanitation services. Beneficiaries also contribute financially or in other ways at the start of projects to instill a sense of ownership.

In the case of Water1st, not only does the organization train communities on the technical aspects of independently maintaining the new water systems, but it also helps communities institutionalize payment of water fees. According to Water1st, when a project is owned and operated by the beneficiaries, they are motivated to keep it running. Water1st also routinely follows up on its projects to make sure they’re not only functioning but that other sociological issues – like hierarchies or conflicts within the community – are not derailing their success.

For years now, the business sector and self-help books have preached the concept of “failing forward” – that failure is inevitable, and ignoring it will precipitate bigger problems down the road, while learning from failure will propel us toward success and innovation. Unfortunately, the WASH sector – and international development as a whole – has been slow to embrace this mindset, mostly because of the risk that donors will pull funding if they admit failure.

But some organizations are starting to realize there is no alternative route to success. BRAC and Canada’s Engineers Without Borders are hoping to push the entire industry forward by publishing their mistakes in annual “failure reports.” At one point, Water1st, along with a host of other organizations, also developed a “Water for Life rating” that independently rated WASH programs on their long-term sustainability. Although the rating system didn’t take off – likely because organizations perceived it as a risk – Water1st believes it still has potential to propel WASH programs forward if donors were willing to support organizations that go through the process. Those that received a high score could be awarded a grant to keep doing what they’re doing, while those that scored poorly would be given financial support to fix the problems.

With 2030 fast approaching as the “deadline” for the Sustainable Development Goals, the WASH sector doesn’t have time to continue pushing its sustainability issues out of sight. Failing forward is the only way to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

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Friendly Water for the World

Founded in 2010, Friendly Water for the World is a dynamic, rapidly growing, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Olympia, WA. Its mission is to expand global access to low-cost clean water technologies and information about health and sanitation through knowledge-sharing, training, applied research, community-building, peacemaking, and efforts at sustainability. The organization empowers communities abroad to take care of their own clean water needs, even as it empowers people in the U.S. to make a real difference. Friendly Water for the World currently works in 15 countries, and has assisted more than 190 marginalized and oppressed rural communities – including widows with HIV, people with albinism, survivors of war-time rape, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, indigenous tribes, and unemployed youth – ensure their own safe drinking water while becoming employed in the process.

Hands for Peacemaking Foundation

Many villages that populate the mountainous areas of NW Guatemala are continually faced with a daily struggle to obtain water for survival. Since most village locations were based on available land, and not by the availability of natural resources, they often lack basic water resources. Many water sources have dried up due to the over-harvesting of trees to be used for firewood – an example of the domino effect that one resource has on another. Hands for Peacemaking Foundation (HFPF) has partnered with villages to install water storage tanks. These simple but effective means to collect water during the rainy season are coupled with water filters to meet the basic needs. The resulting water system doesn’t replace a well or spring, but it does provide emergency water that can mean life or death for villagers. HFPF has included the introduction of forest management in its training and education of villages after the installation of catchment systems. To date, the organization has installed 448 water catchment systems and 226 water filters in 17 villages.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps helps people around the world get clean water by providing water during emergencies, building wells to reduce long treks (often made by vulnerable girls and women), repairing damaged water infrastructure and helping construct reservoirs to ensure communities have access to clean water in the future. In Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps restored a community’s water infrastructure to provide clean and safe water for over 43,000 people. In turn, this also significantly reduced the distance girls had to travel to collect drinking water for their families from 2500m to 80m. During emergencies, access to clean water plays a vital role in preventing disease outbreaks and other water-borne illnesses. In response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo where three quarters of the population lack access to clean water, Mercy Corps has provided over 600,000 displaced people with safe drinking water to help keep their families healthy and prevent disease. In 2018, Mercy Corps connected more than 3 million people to clean water and hygiene and sanitation facilities during emergencies across the globe.

MSR Global Health

MSR is a leading innovator and manufacturer of low-cost, field-proven products that improve access to basic human needs for people around the globe. With 50 years of technical engineering and manufacturing expertise, MSR is developing technologies that increase access to vital needs such as clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Path From Poverty

Path From Poverty transforms lives and communities by working with rural women’s savings groups in eastern Kenya. Launched in 2000, the organization now comprises 52 groups with over 1,100 members. It provides training in leadership, group governance, small business development, finance management and community service that supports women to launch their individual or group income-generating projects and to pool group savings and purchase 10,000-liter rainwater catchment tanks. To show its support and encouragement for their hard work, Path From Poverty also sends eight “gift” water tanks each month to needy women. In 2018, Path From Poverty installed 191 rainwater tanks that now provide clean, safe water to over 2,000 women, their families, and neighbors.


Splash is a nonprofit organization that designs child-focused water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH), and menstrual health solutions for governments in some of the world’s biggest, low-resource cities. Through Project WISE (WASH-in-Schools for Everyone), Splash aims to reach every school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Kolkata, India, with WASH infrastructure, behavior change programs, and strengthened menstrual health services, benefiting one million children by 2023. Splash’s approach to WASH includes high-quality water filtration systems, durable drinking and hand washing stations, improved toilets, teacher training, and hygiene education to ensure that kids learn healthy habits. This is accomplished through government partnership, supply chain development, local leadership, and other systems-strengthening activities. To date, Splash has completed over 1,700 projects at child-serving institutions, including schools, hospitals, shelters and orphanages. Splash reaches over 430,000 children a day in eight countries (China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam).

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 188,000 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.


WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. As the leading international clean water nonprofit, WaterAid works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 26.4 million people with clean water and 26.3 million people with decent toilets.

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.