Over 783 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Every day, 6,000 people die from complications due to contaminated drinking water. Most of those people are children. But the culprit is not an absence of wells. NGOs have been building wells all over developing rural areas for decades. The real problem is a lack of maintenance.

Kyle Westaway, a board member of The Adventure Project, a non-profit working toward sustainable water solutions in Uganda, asks us to compare a new well to a new car. A new car, he says, is a great gift that connects people, businesses, and communities. But, without the mechanical savvy or money required to change the oil, that car will be junk in less than a year.

In the same way, new wells are wonderful gifts that, without care and maintenance, quickly descend into obsolescence. Governments in developing nations usually don’t have the resources to maintain or restore wells, and it’s easier for NGOs—but more expensive—to just build new ones. In the meantime, people resort to local “scoop holes,” like unfiltered streams or springs.

That’s where Water for People (WFP) comes in. The organization, which has projects on every continent, is working with local governments in western Uganda to institute a “pay-as-you-fetch” program so wells can fund themselves. WFP takes working wells and hands them over to mechanics, who collect a usage fee. The going rate is 100 Ugandan shillings (4 cents) per jerry can of water, which is about 20 liters. Half the money goes into a fund to repair the well, which requires overhaul about once every 10 years.

The program hinges on an inexpensive, low-tech water meter that tracks how many liters are taken out. Putting entrepreneurs in charge of meter-equipped wells is the key to keeping them in use.

Diana Keesiga, who manages the project, believes it has huge potential. “Once I prove this works, I am going to expand this model across Uganda,” she says with confidence. “And then, the continent.”

John Mahon

Sources: Huffington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation