1) The world context
Nearly 900 million people still do not have access to potable drinking water, and of them 83% live in rural areas and the rest in poor suburbs around major cities or in slums ; that’s according to optimistic UN statistics, but in reality even more people live in these conditions . 950 million live in unsanitary conditions or slums.
Even worse, 2.5 billion people today have no proper sanitation and more than 4 million people, a majority of them young children, die every year from a lack of clean drinking water or unsanitary living conditions.
Similarly, according to UNICEF, in 2011 less than half of all primary schools in developing countries had drinking water and only slightly more than a third had proper toilets.
Lastly, women and children work tens of millions of days every year because of these conditions, in particular young girls who cannot attend school because they must walk many kilometres every day to fetch water.
You can watch a 3-minute video on this subject from Burkina Faso filmed by Water Channel by clicking on this link :
Although unfortunately not everyone does, many people deplore this situation, are motivated and organise seminars and meetings on the subject. However, progress, while it is real, remains slow and too many people seem to content with that. While it is easy to forget these statistics quickly, there’s no real excuse for just giving up and not doing more about the situation.
So what can we do ?
The best idea is not to do things for people or to finance their solutions, but to help them solve problems themselves by providing them with the information they need to do just that.
2) The lack of solutions that are adapted for many local leaders and technical operators
Many experts have indeed written high-quality works on water and sanitation.
While they may be useful for specialists, these documents, which for the most part do not concern the poorest individuals in the most precarious situations, are not appropriate or are insufficient for local leaders, operators and elected officials ; they often lack information about the subject and have little means of finding those resources or time to read it if they do, which creates another barrier to action.
I recall one story in particular that began with my Burkinabe friend, B. Compaoré who was visiting in Paris and who complained, and rightfully so, of the lack of water in his country and his incapacity to respond to the problem. With the best of intentions of course, I suggested that he get more information and documentation on solutions.
He answered “Thanks for the suggestion, but we often can only rely on NGOs, investors or businesses who certainly know the subject well but who do all the work for us while we should be able to resolve the situation by ourselves. How can we do otherwise if we don’t have the information we need to determine which solutions are the best adapted to our villages, our financial situation and our traditions or how to carry them out ?”
I said that there are many interesting books, documents and scientific studies available and his immediate, common-sense response, which left me speechless, was :
“Well, obviously, you live in Paris, you surely have the time and the inclination to read hundreds of pages about a technical subject that interests you, you know where to find them and are able to buy them, but how do you expect a village chief, local officials or the head of an association, a neighbourhood or a community, even less so a technical worker, to be able to know where to find that information and gain access it ?”
“How would they ever have the time to read all that when they so often are either working or facing much more pressing problems ? Their problem is not that they need to know everything, simply that they need to have a sufficient amount of information, knowledge and understanding to be able to choose or suggest relatively simple but effective actions that can be studied and set up in their village or neighbourhood.”
I also remember having gone to several seminars where brilliant speakers explained simply and correctly that one of the best ways to facilitate development would be to research and share information about the best, most effective and innovative solutions. But when I asked what those solutions were and where one could find information about them that was simple and easy to understand, almost invariably, the experts answered that “We know what the solutions are ; all the experts know about them. There are a lot of documents written already about them. You should look them up…” But where ? I’m still waiting for the answer to that question. One expert even answered, in what I consider to be proof of a serious breakdown in logical thinking, “Well, we’re not very well going to write and publish a sort of encyclopaedia of water and sanitation for dummies …”.
Coincidentally, just a few weeks later, having gone to look for just such a document, I asked a friend who had done work with water access programs what sort of information he had. Imagine my surprise when he said “We don’t have very much and nothing that’s really well adapted. We have a very complete book several hundred pages long with a hefty bibliography that we thought would be useful to some of our Ethiopian partners and so we sent it to them last year. But when we asked them what they had been able to do with it, they told us practically nothing because it was much too long and complicated for them. They had hardly even opened it…”
And so, after those experiences, the idea for this Resource, fed by the firm desire to help developing countries solve their own problems with their own resources, was born.
3) A good way to improve their situation, simply
“The Lord helps those who help themselves” so the saying goes, and Monsignor Jean Rodhain, founder of Secours Catholique himself said “It is wiser to plant an apple tree than to give out 100 apples”.
But it is even wiser still to teach a skill so that the person is in a better position to understand a given situation, do some studying and be able to discuss with the people and organisations concerned what would be the best, most effective plan of action.
It is true in every country that the people in the most difficult situations or those living in extreme poverty do not have many resources and are often discouraged by the troubles they face, but at the same time they generally have qualities and key skills, too little known but that are just waiting to be discovered – solidarity and an amazing capacity to learn, to launch projects, to succeed together at something that other people would never even have dared to undertake.
We just need to be able to provide them with some basic knowledge that can help them do just that. That is what this Resource aims to do.
4) The main objectives of this Resource
Basically, its objectives are to :
- provide the greatest number of people with the best information currently available in terms of access to water and sanitation, explained simply and with illustrations, for each of the hundred odd subjects chosen,
- not as it is usually presented, as the technique used by this or that organisation
- but in the form of a reader-friendly summary containing all the interesting or useful information on the subject
while also providing readers with quick, direct access via hyperlinks to a variety of more in-depth studies, more detailed documents or videos from France or other countries on the subject or on a specific technique.
- to provide decision-makers, local leaders and technical operators with clear documents that are easy to understand and use via the web, making them available quickly and directly to those people in their own countries ; additionally, should they need to, they can immediately access related documents that illustrate or go into more detail about particularly difficult points of the subject concerned.
Experience has shown time and again that, far from lacking good intentions, local leaders and decision makers, who are not specialists in the subject or even sufficiently informed of the techniques available or their costs, often hesitate to start up projects on water access and sanitation. Those projects seem too complicated and technical, and they may even hesitate to talk about them with specialists. How could we expect it to be any different if they don’t even have a minimum of information on the kinds of solutions, their operating methods, advantages and disadvantages, cost and maintenance required for hydraulic structures ? How can they feel that they are capable of discussing the subject if they don’t know much about it and they risk having experts offer inadequate or costly solutions?
5) Who is this Resource intended for?
It is principally intended for
- the many leaders and decision-makers in towns, villages, neighbourhoods, communities and associations who want to provide or improve access to water or sanitation in their area,
- the local, regional or even national technical utility services charged with carrying out these projects.
- associations, foundations and development organisations that help install or help finance these kind of programmes and who will be able to find simple, interesting information that in many cases is available nowhere else.
- as well as design offices, research and training organisms and local utility operators or businesses.
6) What’s special about this resource?
- It was developed to be both a technical reference and a decision-making tool to help the most deprived populations, particularly the poorest among them, gain access to water and sanitation. But it could also be useful in a number of other situations, including for developed countries for a number of the subjects discusses.
- It is not only technical, it includes sections on economics, financing and education.
It is divided into 4 sections : Water, Sanitation, Pricing – Financing, and Governance.
- The subjects (nearly one hundred) are organised by theme to make it easier to search through them.
They are in the form of illustrated electronic files, about 4 or 5 pages long, each laid out in the same way to make them easier to read, search through and compare in detail.
- Every file presents a specific technique not as the particular technique used by this or that expert or organisation but rather with an annotated summary of methods that have already been tried and are recommended in the particular field, allowing everyone to form their own opinion and choose the solution that is the best and/or the best suited for them.
- A specific and particularly innovative section found at the end of every file provides readers with direct access to a whole range of additional documents, videos and reports about the subject with just a simple click on a link.
- The last tool is a space for every reader to leave remarks and suggestions for changes or information to be added. These comments will be taken into consideration at every regular update of the Resource.
- The Resource deals not only with drinking water but also with agricultural water, an absolute necessity for food production but a subject that is all too rarely considered.
- Finally, this resource, which represents several thousands of hours of research and work, was designed in cooperation with nearly 15 African organisations that are members of the Caritas Internationalis network (169 countries) and the greatly appreciated volunteer efforts of many people, including some 15 engineering students at the Ecole Centrale de Paris and the Université Paris VI along with experts who kindly agreed to proofread and check the contents of the most complex files.
7) Why choose this format of different files rather than a classic book format?
For several reasons :
- In any given situation, there generally isn’t one single, perfect solution or a miracle cure for a problem. The best solution is the one that is the most suited to the local context.
In addition, most situations have their own particularities that are not related to just one aspect of the issue of drinking water or sanitation. They can vary depending on the local customs, the region or the community and require variable, multi-purpose solutions.
Often, several types of solutions are needed, and therefore several different files can be used, especially if the aim is a comprehensive, sustainable solution.
That would be the case for example with a local government that wants to find out about ways to find water, to drill for it, install a pump and store it as well as use the right measures to store it in the proper conditions or provide simple solutions to treat it in individuals homes, all with a fair pricing system or financial assistance, then improving sanitation with the construction of latrines and raising awareness about hygiene and health.
- It’s also important that we aim to have the solutions that are adopted by a very poor local population be appropriate and effective and then also that they be temporary or able to change over time as the villages and neighbourhoods develop.
For example in an area where there is a wide range of standards of living among different populations or in different neighbourhoods, the best solution might be to install simple structures such as wells or standpipes and then to create mini water distribution networks with initial public or private hook-ups and the pricing organised so that the price of water at standpipes is lower. And all those different subjects are dealt with in different files.
- An anthology or collection is not intended to deal with all the subjects from the beginning ; it is intended to be evolving, changeable and easily updated ; by organising this resource into files updating it becomes all the easier. Also, with this structure, readers can consult just the subjects they’re interested in and they can more easily imagine combinations of various methods that could work.
This is how this Resource came to be, how we decided upon the shape it would take and the main ways that we hope it will be used. At the same time, we hope to see a common, international work of this kind that could use the best subjects and the few all too rare documents of this kind that are thankfully being developed in some countries, because what seems most important is the providing the best possible service to others rather than promoting one organisation or another. That is why this solution will be introduced at the 6th world water forum in March 2012 in Marseille, this Resource being only a modest contribution to the effort.
Despite its simple, clear, precise and organised presentation the Resource obviously won’t be able to solve all the problems in any given situation, but it will certainly help to shed some light on the issues and help get the beginnings of a solution off the ground. It will surely help raise new issues as well and begin to solve them too…
This solution will undoubtedly save everyone time and we sincerely hope that it will help them make the best choices in designing, developing and supporting the most diverse, well-suited, useful and sustainable projects possible.