3 Things That Make Water Complicated

A boy cups his hands to drinks water out of a spigot

By Joy Portella —


In the US, pouring a glass of water is easy. Taking a shower is no problem. You don’t think twice about going to the bathroom: do your business, flush the toilet, wash your hands, and get on with it. Most of us take quality water, sanitation, and hygiene for granted.


That’s why when the 2014 water crisis happened in Flint, Michigan, it shocked many Americans. But not having safe water – or reliable sanitation systems or hygiene practices – is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. According to the WHO, in 2015 844 million people lacked access to even basic drinking water; 2.3 billion did not have basic sanitation services.


Minerva goddesses have been geeking out on water lately. We’re partnering with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation on communication around their safe water program, and as a result, we’ve been thinking and talking about water on the regular. That includes networking with experts in WASH (For those in the know, that’s water, sanitation, and hygiene.) at a recent conference in the Netherlands, and then rubbing elbows with Seattle-based WASH innovators brought together by our friends at the Washington Global Health Alliance.


Through all of this, we’ve learned one incontrovertible fact about WASH: It’s complicated.


Complexity is a common theme in global development, but WASH is different because it seems so darn simple. If a village needs water, build a well or a handpump and people will immediately see the value. They will use the water and keep it maintained. If a bathroom is needed, build a toilet and hook it up to a sewer or septic tank and the results will “flow.”


In my mind, WASH has always seemed like a hardware challenge. If you create the right infrastructure, your problem will be solved. Right?




Too often, that infrastructure breaks down without any hope of getting fixed. A decade ago, research from the International Institute for Environment and Development first identified this problem. They estimated that there were 50,000 dysfunctional water supply points across Africa, representing a failed investment of US $215-300 million. And that doesn’t even count the many water points that were functioning but either not being used or deteriorating.


Why isn’t it simpler to get people safe water and a clean place to poo? Here are three ways that WASH is more complicated than you think:


It’s all about systems

Hardware is the most tangible part of WASH and it’s the easiest thing for most of us to conceptualize. But hardware is just one component of a system, which includes all the people, organizations, and institutions – and the linkages among them – that it takes to get WASH services to everyone.


You can build a well or a tap, but you need to look at the broader system to translate that hardware into sustainable water delivery. What will it take to build that infrastructure? Who’s going to maintain it? How do you test for and maintain water quality so people don’t get diarrhea or other diseases? Who identifies, tracks, and manages local water resources? And who’s looking to the future, assessing the system, and thinking about what it will need next month, next year, or next decade?


Think of how this works where I live in Seattle. The hub of our water system is the Seattle Water Department, which oversees protection of the Cedar and Tolt watersheds and manages water treatment facilities in both locations. They also test and maintain the quality of Seattle’s drinking water, establish water rates, bill for water, and help customers resolve billing issues. Finally, they maintain and repair thousands of pipes, valves, water connections, and other hardware.


This complex system of services isn’t flawless but it works pretty well. I don’t think twice about clean water. I just get up in the morning and pour myself a glass.


You’ve got to change people’s minds

The technical solutions – water chlorination kits, handwashing stations, new-fangled toilets – are only effective if people use them. Changing people’s minds and behaviors is critical and it’s not something the WASH sector – largely staffed by engineers and not designers, behaviorists, or psychologists – has traditionally done well.


Altering mindsets and behavior can’t be done overnight. As this insightful article in Scientific American points out, user-centered design is critical. Simple modifications like placing chlorine dispensers closer to taps and bundling water access and safety costs in a bill can make huge differences in consumer behaviors. But it takes time to observe people, design around them, test solutions, and modify them.


Changes to behaviors can also be sparked by education and awareness programs; this is the basis of a burgeoning field called behavior change communication. The key to making these initiatives work is finding the right communication vehicle or message. That’s why we love the partnership between the international NGO World Vision and Sesame Workshop – the nonprofit arm of Sesame Street – called WASH UP! It uses videos, books, play mats, and songs featuring Muppets Raya and Elmo to teach children about simple, life-saving habits like handwashing or wearing shoes in a latrine or toilet. Check out this adorable video to learn more and see Raya in action.


WASH UP! started with a single program in Zambia that reach 6,800 students in rural communities. Based on this early success, it’s now being implemented in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America – including parts of Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq that are hosting Syrian refugee families. The program will expand to India and Rwanda this year.


Showing it’s working takes work

One of the limitations of the WASH sector is that it’s chronically underfunded. A 2017 report from the WHO highlighted that countries are not spending enough to meet their water and sanitation goals, and aid commitments to fill the gap were decreasing – from US$10.4 billion in 2012 to US$8.2 billion in 2015. The reasons for this are numerous and complicated, but the problem is often that funders don’t have confidence their money will be well spent. Too often, water service deliverers are not credit worthy, WASH providers are not efficient, and legal and regulatory environments are not transparent.


The sector needs to do a better job of creating and sharing evidence of what works. This is why we’re excited about the safe water efforts of the Hilton Foundation. Hilton focuses its work at the district level, where most local water decisions are made, in six sub-Saharan African countries. They’ve funded configurations of leading water organizations like IRC WASH, World Vision, Water.org, and many others to partner with district governments; create plans for how to supply these districts with water; and then work as a system to make it happen.


The goal is for everyone in these districts – even the most impoverished, off-the-grid families – is to have safe, sustainable water by 2030.


Perhaps the most exciting part is that Hilton has pledged to measure the heck out of progress in these districts, building a strong evidence base of what’s working – and what’s not. This evidence is sorely needed to drive additional money to the sector and ensure more people can get the water and sanitation services they need.


All of this has made me think more about what it takes to make my morning glass of water and routine flush possible. I try to remember that there’s a system at work, I’m part of it, and like many things in life, I shouldn’t take it for granted.

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.