“For the first time in human history, more than one half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and some of the largest and fastest growing population centers in the world – countries like India, China, parts of sub-Saharan Africa – are in areas where water resources are becoming more and more scarce,” said Water.org’s Rich Thorsten in a recent interview with ECSP.
Thorsten serves as director of international programs for Water.org, which partners with local communities, governments, and NGOs across Central America, South Asia, and Africa to bring improved water sanitation to at-need rural and urban populations. He emphasized that ensuring access to clean water has a number of positive spillover effects, ranging from improved prospects for economic development to greater social stability, since access to non-polluted water supplies removes one potential source of tension within and between communities.
The greatest benefit of improved sanitation services, however, comes in the form of enhanced public health outcomes. “I would definitely say there is a strong correlation” between the two, Thorsten asserted. “Water and sanitation-related diseases are related to the deaths of at least 3.5 million people every year in the developing world – not to mention millions of hours and dollars that are lost to treating health problems and coping with health problems as a result of poor [water] access and hygiene practices.”
Thorsten said that community participation has been a key aspect of ensuring the sustainability of Water.org’s projects. To pave the way for continued gains in economic development and public health, he said they work alongside water users, engineers, and government officials in target communities to make those parties stakeholders in the infrastructure development process. Fostering a sense of community ownership of sanitation projects helps reduce the likelihood that infrastructure will fall into disrepair or disuse after the initial programming intervention has been conducted.
Given that improving water-sanitation access for the world’s poor is a key element of the UN Millennium Development Goals, Thorsten said he is pleased the subject seems to be attracting more attention within the policymaking and development communities. Despite the positive momentum, however, he acknowledged the fight to ensure clean-water access for the developing world will remain an uphill battle.