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Water is essential to all life, a phrase often repeated, yet the fact remains that over 800 million people cannot access potable water every day. 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation increasing the likelihood of disease not just in that region but globally, an issue that goes hand in hand with poor access to water. Every year, 3.4 million die of water related diseases, equivalent to the population of Los Angeles.

When successful potable water projects enter a community, it has been shown to have beneficial impacts across many aspects of that communities life. In truth, it lies at the heart of the most cost effective and efficient solutions to global health, population growth, poverty, disease and climate change. The World Health Organization estimates a return of 3-34$ for every dollar invested in a clean water project, given the technology and region.

With such powerful ramifications, the debate on how best to approach this problem is an important one. Over the past 20 years, there have been two main approaches, that of charity/micro-finance projects, and the privatization model, the most famous case taking place in Cochamamba, Belize. Both have their critics.

There is now a third approach, a more holistic one, that considers unique environmental and cultural factors. Overall it has been coined as the Investment in Watershed Services strategy, and it combines tactics from the previous two long standing frameworks for improving access to potable water.

With the latest solution, initial capital for a given project is invested directly to farmers, or potential land owners in the natural watersheds of a given area. The money is used to clean up and maintain the natural functions of the watershed, which perform the same functions of treatment plants or ‘grey’ technologies without the expensive equipment.

Nonprofits and communities all over the world are recognizing the value in this framework as it  creates a co-dependent and cyclical dynamic with downstream water users and polluters funding and investing in the upstream maintenance. The headliner project of this nature is New York ongoing investment in the Catskills Mountains. New York municipality pays for riverbank protection and maintenance that have allowed it to save billions on costly filtration plants. However, there are projects all over the world at all different scales using the very same framework.

By not having environmental damage and natural resources as an externality in the financing of the project, many positive side effects occur wherever these projects are enacted. Aside from addressing the initial issue of access to clean water. The enhanced environmental and farming practices that make up the foundation of this approach, increase food yields and improve the natural habitat.

For more information on the overall framework of the strategy, ongoing projects or how to become involved, go to the Watershed Connect website.

– Tyler Shafsky

Sources: Watershed Connect, USAID, Huffington Post
Photo: Wanah Fong