On World Water Day, remembering the true compass for our water policies and programs
In March 2014, advocates raised their glasses in a virtual toast to celebrate the lifesaving impact of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Then in December 2015, members of Congress clinked their glasses in return through the unanimous passage of the Water for the World Act, which more effectively targets US funds to communities with greatest need; promotes coordination across US government agencies working on WASH, including integration with other health and development areas; and creates more robust monitoring and evaluation measures to ensure that resources are invested in the most impactful way possible.
As we mark World Water Day on March 22, we applaud the US government for prioritizing this important policy. The improved targeting of US funds for WASH will doubtlessly buoy maternal, newborn, and child health outcomes. Consider the simple fact that if everyone had access to safe drinking water, almost 90% of deaths due to diarrhea could be prevented.
The policy also acknowledges that creative approaches to on-the-ground implementation are just as important as innovative health tools, a priority that we also share. A relentless focus on results and the practical implementation of what works for the world's poorest communities are woven into PATH's DNA. Though today we are known simply by our acronym, PATH's abbreviation stands for Program for Appropriate Technology in Health. It is this emphasis on appropriate technology that drives every project we undertake, including our strategies on safe water and sanitation.
Handwashing station design testing with our end users in Tanzania.
PATH develops WASH technologies, but these tools are not the core compass of our program. The hallmark of our market-based safe water and sanitation programs is user-centered design and testing; our truest laboratory is the community itself. Do the water filters that people are using promote correct and consistent use? Is this newly designed water filter a practical (and appealing) solution for Taramma, a mother in Vavilala, India? What features do villagers in Tanzania want in a handwashing station? How can we redesign a water filter in Cambodia to make it more appealing to customers? How can we make a latrine that is inexpensive, faster to build, and still considered pucca by end-users in India? We test, incorporate feedback, and test again until we have a product people will buy and consistently use.
One community member summed it up perfectly when she said, “This is a problem beyond technology.” Technology is critical, but we can't be blinded by an attachment to a particular tool or approach and forget that the end goal is about meeting the needs of the user, however quiet and subtle that may be. Innovation may mean a tiny pivot rather than a fundamental shift, like an adapter ring in a water filter that will accommodate several different sizes of ceramic pots or an aesthetically pleasing design upgrade.
This year, PATH's WASH Team is celebrating World Water Day with a trip in India to talk to users about redesigned latrines in Bihar, to continue the conversation with our most important target audience, and to reaffirm our belief that the best policies and programs never lose sight of their true compass: the children whose parents want to give them the healthiest start in life. Thanks to the Water for the World Act and to programs that embody its principles, we're pointed in the right direction, toward a world where every raised glass of water contributes to that universal wish: “Cheers… To your health.”
Photo credits: PATH.