“A watched pot never boils” is an axiom my mother often shared growing up. I never bought it. I knew if I stood there long enough, even though my perception of time might be altered, if I kept heat underneath a pot of water, it would boil regardless of my gaze. My monitoring of the pot did not, and cannot, change the laws of thermodynamics. Monitoring something doesn’t change anything about it.
We learned this truth about simple observation in our early days. As The Water Project began asking questions about water point reliability – viewed over time – we noticed both a lack of actionable data in the broader water sector and, more importantly, any solid plans to address it.
Looking in the mirror and having three or so years behind us, we recognized there was a growing collection of our own past work that we could begin to observe and measure. What was still working, and what had fallen into disrepair?
At the time, this simple monitoring of past work wasn’t the norm. Not at scale. Not across every community. Many organizations, both governmental and not, installed water projects worldwide, assuming that local communities and mechanics can and would maintain their water points.1 It turns out that more often, they can’t and don’t.2 A wide study of hand pumps in sub-Saharan Africa revealed, “On average, one in four handpumps was not working at any point in time.”3 Water projects, especially wells with handpumps, can quickly fall into disrepair without routine maintenance. Sometimes, major overhaul work is needed. And in most cases, when water stops flowing from a pump, it never starts again. People move on to get water that is more convenient, more reliable, and oftentimes, less safe.
We “monitored” this for a bit. And what became abundantly clear is that without continued intervention, monitoring was pointless. Without repairs, we would simply watch past investments stop producing impact. Lost access to clean water meant the water crisis quickly returned to communities. And if all we did was watch… nothing was being solved.
Monitoring is just the first step. Resolving routine issues is what truly matters.
Learning this, we charted a way forward that accounts for the need to provide ongoing service and support to communities to maintain, not just monitor, water points. We call it The Water Promise, and it is our commitment to every community we serve with first-time access to water.
Reliable access to water, it turns out, is far more critical to building resilient communities than any intermittent “solution.” Truly reliable water changes behavior. When people can rely on a pump to work every day, how their day is organized changes. The time no longer needed to gather water from far away means other investments can be made – but only if it can be counted on.
Of course, maintaining water points isn’t free. There’s a cost. And it’s a significant one that we now account for at the beginning of every new water project.4 We understand that long term reliability only occurs if we take into account the total costs of keeping the water running for the long term, which can span decades. We regularly evaluate new processes, emerging technologies, and new models of supporting and mitigating these expenses, but there is more to be learned and implemented. Nevertheless, today, we know that 96% of the water points we manage are functional.5 We monitor. And every one of the communities served by those water points knows who to contact if and when their water point fails to perform. And we respond.
We’ll continue to work to cement this truth across the water sector – that the time for simply monitoring past work is itself past. We must, instead, commit to reliability. Otherwise, broken-down water points will continue to undermine any hope for a true end to the water crisis. The reliability of access to clean water should be something we all have the privilege of taking for granted.