Imagine the population of Seattle dying each year from an entirely preventable and fixable problem. That’s roughly the number of people that die each year from not having access to safe water and sanitation services. Globally, 2 billion people drink water from a contaminated source, and 4.5 billion do not have access to safely managed sanitation which is necessary for preventing malnutrition and deaths from infectious diseases. Water and sanitation clearly aren’t luxury products; they are necessary to sustain life. Unfortunately, as necessary as they are, neither water nor sanitation is free. In fact, existing models for sanitation infrastructure are too expensive for most people living in low- and middle-income countries.
One approach to expanding access to people who have traditionally found themselves unable to consume things they need and want—like water and sanitation—is to rely primarily on donations to provide them. For example, if toilets are too expensive for individuals and communities to afford, donations that fund toilets provide access.
Though donations that provide products and services can be useful as a stopgap solution in short-run crisis situations, this approach lacks a sustainable mechanism for continuing to deliver these products once funding dries up. Unfortunately, this can create a system of dependence that prevents communities from creating their own sustainable solutions.
Over the next decade, the number of people living in crowded cities without access to adequate water and sanitation services is set to more than double and reach two billion. As a result, new, sustainable models for making water and sanitation services available must be developed, and these are likely to be, at least in some part, market-based. By providing products and services people need and want at a price they can afford, consumers are incentivized to keep the services afloat, creating a sustainable mechanism for services to continue, and hopefully scale.
Below are three organizations working to increase access to these basic services for billions of people around the world. Although different in their approach, these organizations have one thing in common: developing a model that has sustainability at its core.
Based in Kenya, Sanergy provides non-sewered sanitation solutions that serve all urban residents and that are five times cheaper than sewers. The company empowers entrepreneurs who operate community latrines that offer a pay-for-use community toilet in non-sewered locations and slums. The waste is collected and treated via anaerobic digestion, a sequence of processes where microorganisms break down biodegradable matter without oxygen. Sanergy works to convert this waste into animal feed which is sold to farmers. In addition, the company also processes this waste into solid organic fertilizer branded as Evergrow. Sanergy now serves more than 120,000 people daily, and has collected more than 15,000 tons of waste in 2021.
Sanivation has two main innovations that are tackling the sanitation problem in a sustainable way. First, in partnership with local governments, the organization designs, builds, and operates fecal sludge treatment plants. These plants transform waste into biomass fuels which are then sold to cover the operational costs of the plants. In addition to helping cities and towns manage their waste, converting the collected waste into biomass fuels also prevents environmental pollution and saves trees. The second innovation Sanivation offers is its integrated market-based approach to providing sanitation solutions which comprise four main activities: advisory services, data collection, stakeholder engagement, and service delivery. Sanivation tailors its solutions based on the needs of the people in the region where it works. Over the past several years, the organization has worked with more than a dozen organizations and has transformed thousands of tons of waste into biomass fuels.
Water4 is a nonprofit organization that partners with local water entrepreneurs to create a sustainable business model that makes water available to people in low-income countries. The organization provides a holistic and market-based approach to solving the water crisis in the communities where it works. Water4 partners with franchisees and provides them with drilling and pumping tools, technology and business management training, and a support network with 24/7 access to the organization’s technology team. By providing a suite of services, franchisees have access to all the resources they need in order to sustainably build and run a water supply enterprise. So far, this approach has proven successful: today Water4 works with 19 partners operating in 13 different countries and has supported close to 7,000 projects that have impacted 1.7 million people since 2009. NUMA Water, one of Water4’s solutions targeted at remote villages of 300 or more people, is able to operate sustainably at a cost that is affordable to even some of the most under-resourced communities.
Water is life. And without proper sanitation, people succumb to sickness, such as diarrhea and typhoid which can lead to death. Without new, sustainable models for providing these services to billions of people across the world without access, progress at solving this global problem will be slow. Thankfully, organizations such as these are deploying solutions that are having real impact in the field.