For developing communities in many parts of the world, safe drinking water is far from a guaranteed part of daily life.
Hand in hand with water safety is the issue of proper sanitation. A lack of resources, infrastructure, and education often means that practices like open defecation or poor hand-washing further threaten a community’s already precarious water supply.
Water Mission, an engineering nonprofit that designs, builds, and implements safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) solutions in developing regions and disaster areas, understands that both education and engineering play a key role in addressing the world’s water crisis.
With World Toilet Day coming up this November 19, WASH issues are a particularly timely topic. We spoke with Water Mission’s Director of Community Development Andrew Armstrong and Community Development Specialist Caroline Foster to dig into the organization’s goals for responding to these pressing global issues.
Scalable solutions with an emphasis on quality
To date, Water Mission has provided access to safe water to more than 3.6 million people across 55 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Water Mission understands that no two communities are the same. The organization tailors sanitation solutions to the parts of the world in which it operates in part by having boots on the ground. In addition to Water Mission’s Charleston, South Carolina-based team of scientists and staff, the organization also deploys volunteers to work on-location in rural communities around the globe.
This on-the-ground expertise is especially important in times of natural disaster, particularly when it comes to informing relief efforts that may require knowledge of cultural sanitation norms. The organization has helped out with relief efforts ranging from treating water and combatting ebola in Liberia to working with UNICEF Malawi in response to extreme flooding. They’ve also contributed to efforts in Nepal (in the wake of the 2015 earthquake), Tanzania (working with refugee camps), and Haiti (in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Water Mission provided safe water to more than 100,000 people).
One of the company’s core beliefs, says Armstrong, is that scalable solutions don’t have to come at the expense of high-quality service. In other words: It’s possible to prioritize both quantity and quality.
When it comes to sanitation, “Water Mission’s overarching goals are to protect human health and human dignity,” says Armstrong. “So we want to protect people from microbiological contamination, but we also aim to protect privacy.” The best solution, he says, to achieving these goals across the board is the pour-flush latrine — or a toilet without a tank that’s flushed by pouring a small amount of water into the bowl.
When it comes to installing and maintaining these types of sanitation solutions, Foster says that community mobilization is a major part of the process. “Members of the community run the show,” she explains. “They all get training — be it financial training or training on the WASH systems — and they’re in charge of keeping everything going throughout the lifespan of the project.”
Our overarching goals are to protect human health and human dignity.
This system of education and accountability, she explains, has proven successful in the long-term: In a 2008-2015 initiative in Honduras, for example, Water Mission installed 15,664 latrines throughout 464 communities. In 2016, 85% of installed latrines were still functioning, and 82% were still in use. These numbers, Armstrong and Foster say, are high compared to other approaches (such as implementing homemade latrines, which often last no longer than one year).
Armstrong explains that initiatives are carried out both on the community and household level. In homes that qualify for subsidized latrines (such as The Healthy Latrine, one of the most common solutions Water Mission utilizes), the capital cost is typically funded by a donor. The fraction of the subsidy varies based on different contexts, such as how much a family is able to contribute on their own.
“The pour-flush design is a more expensive design, but ultimately it’s those [costlier qualities of the latrines] that keep people using them,” says Foster. In other words, the up-front investment is worth it in the long run.
Water Mission is now turning its focus to Western Honduras in an effort to bring sanitation solutions to even more Honduran homes. They’re working with companies like Kohler to improve upon the designs that have been effective in other parts of the country.
“We want to continue investing in pour-flush toilet technology,” says Armstrong.
In addition to installing Kohler toilets as part of this upcoming project, Water Mission is especially excited by the broad product potential of the partnership. “We’re also working with Kohler to develop a low-cost, efficient, and aspirational hand-washing station that can be used in all kinds of contexts,” says Armstrong. “So, it’s a multi-faceted relationship.”
“Kohler is all about high-quality products and aspirational living, and that very much lines up with our core values,” he adds.