Overcoming Obstacles to Water Sustainability

Bjorn von Euler
Director of Philanthropy, ITT

For years, the water sector has hidden a dirty little secret: more than 50 percent of all water projects fail, and less than five percent are visited after completion. Today we are sweeping yet another secret under the rug: investment in the water cause is suffering and financial flows are insufficient to achieve the MDG targets for water and sanitation.

Clearly, we have a problem with sustainability – from both a programmatic and financial perspective. The good news is that we can overcome these obstacles.

At the forefront of the programmatic sustainability challenge – our ability to deliver on the idea that safe water and sanitation solutions truly endure and NGO and government aid can empower beneficiary communities to succeed long-term – is a simple solution. Monitor results, and not just today – but today, tomorrow, next year, and 10 years from now.

At ITT we partner with Water For People, one of the leading NGOs in this space, to deliver on the sustainability promise of our corporate citizenship program, ITT Watermark. Together with Water For People, we work with schools and communities in India and Central America to build wells, install pipelines, construct latrines and deliver hygiene education. But completing a project is only half the battle -- our work never truly ends because sustainability is a cornerstone of every project ITT employee and Water For People teams return to sites every three, six and ten years to monitor results, assess repair needs, and report back on each project’s long-term sustainability.

Under the innovative leadership of Ned Breslin, Water For People is working to increase sustainability and accountability across the sector by inviting all NGOs to utilize the software and methodology ITT Watermark currently implement. The technology, Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) is open-source, utilizes Android cell phone technology and publishes the status of a water point or sanitation solution on the internet for all to see. As an investor in the water cause, I believe increased transparency is the only way to truly claim a program is sustainable, and I urge all NGOs to adopt this cutting-edge approach – and all donors to demand measured results. This is the key to securing multi-year funding, building strong partnerships and creating a solid foundation for long-term activities on the ground.
ITT is also working with Water For People and our other strategic partners (Mercy Corps and China Women’s Development Foundation) to evolve the standard donor/beneficiary approach from writing checks to working collaboratively on solutions that achieve mutual benefit. An increase in aid allotted to water and sanitation will come only when we can prove return on investment. Most NGOs have not fully understood the mutual benefit in making clean water available to everyone. Similarly, few corporations have realized they must go beyond their own philanthropic efforts and apply their business acumen to the problem to truly experience financial gain.

Perhaps the biggest problem that arises when discussing water as a social need is that we forget it is also an investment opportunity. The way I see it, water actually represents a new market, full of opportunity for humanitarian and economic returns. The majority of countries lacking access to improved safe water and sanitation sources are emerging economies that big business wants to enter. By investing in water and sanitation infrastructure, the private sector can fund a stable economy with increased buying power and a stronger workforce. For corporations like ITT, this is especially appealing, as a strong economy can offer greater business development opportunities and increased sales over time.

My views on sustainability may be untraditional, but they reflect important challenges we need to solve. Let’s keep the dialogue flowing – water is a critical cause, and we can’t let these obstacles impede us from the work that must be done.

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