The 10 Year Challenge

The Water Project has worked with communities who do not have access to reliable water for more than 10 years now. The “10 year challenge” meme provided the opportunity to reflect on all the things that have changed and on things we have accomplished since the start of The Water Project.

However, the thing that stood out to me was what didn’t change. We helped install a new well at Eshienga Primary School in western Kenya in 2009. The students came out to celebrate their new water point on the day construction was complete. They were thrilled that they no longer had to carry water to school each day just to have something to drink.

All of the kids in the picture no longer attend the school. They moved on to the nearby secondary school and now an entirely new cohort of students attend Eshienga Primary. One thing that hasn’t changed is the well. It still provides water to the students 10 years later.

This is a picture from our most recent visit in November.

Not only is water still flowing, it is safe for drinking. Our water quality tests conducted during the visit showed that there are no contaminants. Furthermore, the student health club formed at the time of the well’s completion is still active with 40 members and there is more than $50 in funds set aside to pay for repairs.

We know all of this because of our ongoing monitoring program. We visit our projects, past and present, multiple times throughout the year to ensure that water is still flowing. This information is published on our website for every project over the past decade.

Over the past decade, The Water Project has increasingly worked with a conviction that a project is only beginning once the construction of a well is complete. It seems pretty obvious to say that wells, like any mechanical device, malfunction over time.

As we monitored our projects and the breakdowns became immediately apparent. Regular visits to a well show just how often it happens. Monitoring alone is not enough, we believe in sharing the status of each project in real time.

In 2011, we learned that some of the original parts installed in the well at Eshienga Primary were substandard. We reported what we learned at the time and dispatched our teams to repair the issue.

A year after the maintenance work was done, we published a report from one of our regular monitoring visits. Our teams observed that the well was still providing safe water because that problem was addressed.

We continue to monitor the point and remain available for support. In 2015, we launched a new phone app-based monitoring system (mWater) that allowed us to publish to our website information about each water point immediately after it is visited by our teams. Anyone can go to our website and see the functionality status of every water point.

People can see that, like the case of Eshienga Primary, breakdowns happen and we are using monitoring to track when it happens and ensure that the problem is resolved. For example, here is how the well at Eshienga Primary has performed since 2015, when we began capturing data in a centralized database via cell phone with mWater:

Issues arose, they were reported, and we were able to respond in a timely manner to ensure that water continues to flow. Breakdowns are not unique to this school. We make a promise to every community that we will monitor and support each one of our projects.

We hope to celebrate the 10 year challenge every year as more projects turn 10 years-old. We also see it as a challenge to ourselves to ensure that water flows for more than a decade after a project is complete.

Did you know that 1 out of 3 people do not have access to a safe toilet?

Improvised latrine in Uganda.

Some 4.5 billion people today either do not have a toilet or use one that does not safely manage human waste. Of that total, there are 892 million people who still practice open defecation. This is a big problem. Diseases like cholera are spread through contact with human feces. In fact, the city of Boston created one of the first modern sewage systems in the 1870s after suffering significant deadly outbreaks of cholera. Cities in the U.S. and around the world adopted a similar solution to the problem over the ensuing decades.


The Value of Relationship: Trust – Part 5 of 5

Part 5: Trust

This is all a learning process, but we are not hiding our challenges. Sweeping any failure under the rug simply doesn’t make sense. That cuts out the legs of the shared table where we all sit. The goal is never installation. It is always reliability. Failure is only ever an interim step toward a truly reliable water point.

Meeting with a school administrator at a recently completed water project.

We could keep this information private, but being open is crucial to ensuring that we are actually living up to our claims. It is the transparency of both successes and challenges through which we discover and create experts at the table willing to contribute to the problem-solving process and to the rest of the water sector.

We’re so thankful for a community of supporters, our donors, who share these same values and are up for the challenge of real impact, over quick solutions. This is one of the values that our supporters bring to the table. They enable all of the above by recognizing and investing in the value of the more cumbersome path of a relationship through partnership.

Trust is crucial to making this work. We truly flourish when supporters trust that the information we are sharing is legitimate and hard-won. Communities trust that we are going to follow up on our promise to ensure that water points will continue to provide safe water, even when they break down.

Building relationships is hard work. We are committed to achieving reliable access to safe water, not just one-off solutions.

We wish there was an easy solution. But it’s messy and requires a lot of candid communication between everyone involved.

We’ve been learning this for 11 years. And we build on this foundation every day.

We know this: without strong relationships, the momentary gains in “people served” will vanish into the graveyard of broken promises and dry wells.

So we depend on one another, the experts, at the table across and beside us, from Kenya, to Concord, to California as the voices who inform and invest in the best water solutions and the systems to ensure they will remain reliable every day.

The Water Project does not build wells. We build relationships. And water flows.

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The Value of Relationship – The Table: Part 4 of 5

Part 4: The Table

At The Water Project, we like to imagine that achieving access to safe, reliable water is like a family meeting. Everyone involved has a seat at a large round table — an equal position for all around the meal. At the table sits The Water Project, our local teams, members of the community where projects take place, government officials, donors and other members of the broader water sector. The Water Project is the convener, but there is no head of the table. Rather, it is a community of striving to ensure everyone else at the table can thrive.

Our founder and two local partners meet with a school principal in Kenya

Each seat is crucial to achieving the shared goal of ensuring safe, reliable water in the communities. At a table, different voices will arise as experts at different times.

One of the best expressions of the table metaphor is our online project reporting where we tell the story of a reliable water point. Officers from local teams, oftentimes people from the very communities where they are working, conduct surveys and interviews as a part of the process to evaluate potential water points. It ensures a community’s seat at the table is occupied and amplified.

Traditionally, these kinds of reports are one-way communications between an organization and a donor to show their money is spent appropriately. We use the entire reporting process to facilitate the most important conversations at the table and ensure the highest possible return on investment.

A project report from Shisango Girls School (Principal seen above)

The ongoing monitoring of these projects is another crucial layer. Reliable water is a continuing conversation. Projects are visited no less than three times a year by our local teams to check that water still flows and that it is safe to drink.

The local teams are a critical part of the monitoring process; visiting with communities before, during, and after a water point is installed. They are members of these communities. They speak the local languages. They drink from the same water sources.

The status of a project is updated on our website and within each report for everyone to see in near real-time. At any moment in a projects life, anyone can look up the status — including past failures, projects that can not be repaired or projects we no longer can monitor.

This information is shared across all seats at the table, first to The Water Project and then on to our supporters, the communities where we work, and our local experts. Being transparent by reporting on each of our water points is a way to bring more people to the table, adds additional layers of accountability, and fosters interdependence.

Throughout, we learn new ways to ask questions to better understand the reality of impact, to identify issues in need of repair, and to imagine new ways to share reliable, safe water.

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