TODAY -

Water approach to solving water scarcity

Anand Laishram *



This week, we will learn about Water4, which is a non-profit organization, started in Sierra Leone in Africa, which provides market-based solutions to tackle the issue of water scarcity. But before we deep dive into that, let's look at the problem of water scarcity first.

According to the United Nations, more than 2 billion people worldwide lack access to clean and safe water. That's more than the entire population of India. Imagine the whole country of India without access to clean water and then some more. Population growth has put more pressure on the existing water sources, as more people seek to access water from the same sources. Pollution has only exacerbated that problem.

More than 1 million people (mostly children) die each year due to water related illnesses. About $260 billion is lost every year globally, due to lack of access to safe water. Many organizations have come up in order to make safe water accessible to more. However, their approach usually takes the form of directly providing safe water to an underserved population.

Many NGOs and other organizations have built thousands of water wells in places affected by water scarcity. But directly providing water, which is a form of Push strategy, isn't a sustainable approach. Africa is scattered with unused water wells, abandoned due to lack of repair and maintenance.

Efosa Ojomo, a Harvard Business School graduate, and senior researcher at Christensen Institute, started an NGO called Poverty Stops Here, in order to supply people in Africa with safe water. He did this by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and then using that money to build water wells.

It started out pretty well, everyone was happy, villagers rejoiced at the sight of the fresh water flowing through water pumps. But just like most other such attempts, Poverty Stops Here also failed after some years. Its water wells became unusable due to lack of maintenance and repair.

Mr Ojomo (and Christensen Institute) have shifted their focus on to market-based solutions, for solving water scarcity (and other pressing social issues), which are more sustainable. Water4 is one such organization involved in providing market-based solutions.

Rather than directly supply underserved populations with water, they focus on empowering and supporting local water entrepreneurs, who then supply their communities with water in a profitable and sustainable manner.

Water4 uses the franchise model. They provide local entrepreneurs with:
- Seed capital
- Water drilling, pumping and treating tools (called NUMA units)
- Business management training
- Technical training
- Access to Water4's technology team
- Prepaid metering facilities

The water drilling and pumping units (called NUMA) are designed by Water4 themselves. These NUMA units can supply 10 times more water than a typical water pump. The water is also treated to WHO standards and made available at WHO affordability standards (3 to 5 percent of household income).

Local entrepreneurs are trained to operate these NUMA units, to pump water from safe underground sources. The water is then treated and piped to distribution stations located in populated areas. Customers can buy water from these distribution stations. They can also get water directly distributed to their homes and business locations. The distribution stations and connections are equipped with prepaid metering.

People buy according to what they need and water is distributed according to what is paid. This helps avoid water wastage. The water entrepreneurs are also able to avoid facing cash flow problems (cash is paid upfront), which can be an issue in places with low household incomes.

Water4 also helps the local entrepreneurs with hydrogeology training, geo-physical surveying (to identify the best areas for pumping underground water) and proper drill-ing & borehole construction practices. They also educate and train local communities on proper handwashing, food handling and water storage practices.

As the water entrepreneurs earn more revenues from op-erating the water drilling and distribution stations, they are able to fmance more of the operating costs on their own. Initially they are supported by Water4 (with the help of donor funds). But eventually, the entrepreneurs are able to reduce the reliance on donors.

Today Water4 operates in 13 countries. More than 8000 water projects have been initiated, which have reached about 2 million people. Water4's approach demonstrates the effectiveness of mar-ket-based solutions for solving the most pressing social issues we face today.

Whether it is water scarcity or food scarcity or lack of access to affordable healthcare or housing, we need to look more towards market-based/ pull strategy to come up with solutions that are sustainable and scalable.


* Anand Laishram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on August 05, 2022.


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