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Top Five Blog Posts of 2013

We strive to make the WASHfunders blog a forum for thoughtful reflection and conversation on the challenges, successes, and innovations taking place in the WASH sector. Indeed, this year our blog featured a range of topics, including market-based solutions to the world’s water crisis, lessons learned from monitoring and evaluation of projects, and considerations for long term sustainability in the sector. Here’s a look back at the top five most popular blog posts from 2013.

5. Spotlight On…The World Toilet Organization

2013 marked the first official World Toilet Day formally recognized by the UN, though the World Toilet Organization (WTO) has celebrated the occasion since its founding in 2001. In this post, Anirudh Rajashekar, business development manager at the WTO, describes the organization’s market-based approach to sanitation and points to the creation of SaniShop, a program that trains local masons in Cambodia and India to build and market toilets in their communities, as an example.

4. Country-led Monitoring of Rural Water Supplies – Is It Just a Dream?

Dr. Kerstin Danert at the Skat Foundation reflects on the Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium she attended in April and observes that, while country-led monitoring is paramount to the sustainability of WASH projects, developing country governments and ministries are infrequently involved in this process. In her post, Kerstin compellingly argues that this fragmentation in ownership and monitoring of WASH projects undermines accountability and democracy and highlights possible solutions.

3. Leveraging Partnerships to Increase Impact

How have partnerships been successfully leveraged in the WASH sector? In her blog post from March, Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network, provides one such example in describing her organization’s H20+ program. The initiative -- which employs a multi-sector approach by incorporating interventions in WASH, health, and education -- brings together stakeholders from local NGOs, the private sector, and local government. Lisa describes some of the coordination challenges that arise when working with a large group of partners and provides some lessons based on the experience.

2. What is Good Enough? Defining a “Basic Service Level” for WASH in Schools

In July, Catarina Fonseca, Senior Programme Officer at the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, wrote about adapting IRC’s life-cycle cost methodology to assess the true cost of projects focused on WASH in schools. In her piece, Catarina provides interesting insights into the numerous considerations involved with assessing cost, such as establishing standards and indicators to determine what constitutes an acceptable level of service.

1. Putting the Entrepreneur into WASH

The most trafficked blog post on WASHfunders in 2013 came from Jim Chu, CEO of dloHaiti. In his post, Jim calls for more private sector and business involvement in the provision of WASH services to ensure long term financial sustainability and reduce the incidence of WASH technologies that, once installed, break down and remained unfixed. He highlights the role that the philanthropic sector can play in supporting market-based innovations that can be adopted and scaled up by the private sector.

Leave a comment to let us know what WASH topics you would like to see covered in 2014. Interested in contributing a piece yourself? Contact us at washfunders@foundationcenter.org. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

Blue Planet Network, a division of East Meets West

Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Lisa Nash, executive director of Blue Planet Network,and highlights a recent merger between Blue Planet Network and East Meets West, two global WASH organizations coming together to combine their respective strengths in driving innovation and learning to deliver improved clean water and sanitation solutions to more people worldwide. The post discusses the motivation to merge, lessons learned, and some of the challenges inherent to the process.

After sharing the news of our merger last month with WASH industry leaders, we heard many of the same questions. We thought our answers could spark some interesting discussions:

How did the idea of a merger begin?

Jin Zidell, founder of Blue Planet Network. Credit: BPN

Jin Zidell, founder of Blue Planet Network. Credit: BPN

From the beginning, Jin Zidell, the founder of Blue Planet Network, has been committed to doing whatever has the greatest potential to bring safe drinking water to the most people. In December 2012, John Anner, president of East Meets West approached Blue Planet Network about merging.

Jin came to see the merger as a natural evolution of his original vision. Having started Blue Planet Network in 2002 with an aim to raise awareness and funds to help solve the global safe drinking water crisis, he considered the merger to be the smartest way to reach his original goal. East Meets West was delighted that Blue Planet Network saw the same opportunities for synergy that had prompted them to broach the subject of a merger.

Why did merging make sense for your two organizations and what lessons can be learned by others?

There are three important lessons we can share about evaluating merger as a growth strategy:

1)     You have to be aligned in your goals, there has to be concrete benefit for each organization, and a sense of “magic” doesn’t hurt.

We knew we shared the goal of bringing sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation to people in greatest need around the world. We also shared a belief in innovation, collaboration, and results-based learning.

The team at East Meets West. Credit: EMW

The team at East Meets West. Credit: EMW

EMW decided it was time to expand their successful Southeast Asia programs worldwide through partnerships. They also knew they needed a robust technology infrastructure to support their growth. Blue Planet Network’s global community of 100+ member organizations provided deep knowledge of WASH strategies, common cultural practices, and meaningful relationships with local communities. EMW saw the advantage of Blue Planet Network’s online platform and mobile services to support growth.

For our part, Blue Planet Network saw the merger as a way to help us grow as an “innovation hub,” moving from one to two cross-member pilots at a time to 15-20, with all the learning that would result. While we remain a collective impact network, driven by the needs of our members, the merger gives Blue Planet Network the ability to reach new audiences of donors, implementers, and advocates active in WASH and add deep sector experience to our own resources.

The “magic” happened during a long evaluation session, when we couldn’t look at another spreadsheet. We began to talk about our vision of what we wanted to accomplish together. We knew if we kept that “magic” in sight, no amount of paperwork could stop us.

2)     In the end, it all comes down to a shared confidence in the partnership.

Shared belief in a combined vision is the fuel that brought the merger to life. We were fortunate to have worked with East Meets West as a member of Blue Planet Network and knew that we had similar values. Having experienced that level of partnership made us confident we could count on each other going forward.

3)     Patience and the ability to adapt, helps just as much as big ambition.

Blue Planet Network staff. Credit: BPN

Blue Planet Network staff. Credit: BPN

You have to invest the same level of effort in a merger as you would in a new venture…and still get your day job done. Bringing together two organizations, two boards, and two sets of systems and processes is a huge challenge. Integrating financial systems, agreeing on how to describe our combined organization, communicating with donors and partners…all took conscious thought and agreement across many people. 

After eight months of negotiations, rigorous financial reviews and the approval from both boards of directors, the merger became official on September 6, 2013. We know this merger will be a learning process. Even after months of preparing for the integration, this year will be filled with challenges as we work to retain the autonomy and cultural norms of both organizations, while also bonding together and learning to say “our organization” and “we.” Our work on the merger will continue over the next year — team building, communications, IT integration — but we have agreed on clear success metrics. We need to be just as innovative, collaborative, and results-based about achieving our merger goals as we are about our WASH programs.  

One of those metrics is that, by the end of 2014, we will develop a case study on the reality vs. the expectations of the first year of our EMW-Blue Planet Network merger. We hope this can be a useful resource for other nonprofits looking for innovative ways to deliver more value to the communities they serve.

Editor's Note: This guest blog was authored by Khanh Russo, public benefit investment manager of the Critical Human Needs portfolio at Cisco. Khanh discusses the importance of using data to inform decision-making and increase impact by offering insights into how a smartphone-based system was brought to scale and why Cisco has supported its development.

Data isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have the emotional appeal of water flowing from a hand pump for the first time into a child’s waiting hands. Nor does it have the “going viral” potential of Matt Damon refusing to use the toilet for a year.

But data is a valuable commodity for the organizations working to deliver clean water and sanitation to people who lack those basic resources. Having the right data can drive smarter decision-making and make water and sanitation projects more efficient, more effective, and more appealing to funders.

But in parts of the world where clean water is the scarcest, data is often the hardest to gather. Internet connections can be limited or nonexistent in remote parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This makes it difficult to gather data that can be analyzed and shared in a timely way. By the time you’ve gone home, entered your notes into a spreadsheet, compared it to other reports, and shared your findings with colleagues, the situation in the Malawian village you visited might have changed significantly.

Village in Malawi. Credit: Water For People

Village in Malawi. Credit: Water For People

Enter tools like Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), a smartphone-based system designed to collect, manage, analyze, and display geographically-referenced data. FLOW users create surveys that can include text, photos, video, and GPS coordinates. They can use smartphones to store hundreds of surveys and collect data even where there is no cellular connection. The data automatically gets transmitted once the user has a mobile connection.

Water For People has collected nearly 40,000 surveys in 10 countries through the tool since 2010. FLOW supports data-driven decision-making and visual reporting, which in turn creates transparency and fosters confidence among funders. And more funding ultimately means more people will have access to clean water.  

Leveraging funding from Cisco, Water For People began developing FLOW in 2010 to revolutionize its monitoring efforts. In 2012, Water For People partnered with Akvo Foundation to develop FLOW into an open source tool that could be adapted for other uses by other WASH organizations. It has already been used by 26 organizations in 20 countries.

A couple of things were key for taking FLOW to scale. First, Akvo focused on stabilizing the system and improving its usability, which allowed organizations to more quickly use the data to help improve their approach. Second, Akvo created regional hubs for support and training, which allowed them to improve customer service and response times at a lower cost.

Akvo had to overcome a major challenge to scale: There was a huge demand for the platform, but it was not yet robust enough to serve so many organizations with diverse needs. The Akvo team had to invest a lot of time in reframing expectations while also hiring staff to quickly improve the platform’s usability.

FLOW, an open source tool developed by Water for People and Akvo to collect and manage WASH data

FLOW, an open source tool developed by Water for People and Akvo to collect and manage WASH data

But despite the challenges, Akvo has a clear vision for FLOW that Cisco is proud to support: Giving governments and organizations an open, easy-to-use, affordable way to collect and understand data.

Keri Kugler of Water For People described how FLOW has significantly changed the way her organization monitors water projects and tracks progress in the Huffington Post.

“Using the survey tools, we speak with community members, find out if water service is reliable, whether someone can fix problems, and better understand ongoing issues,” Kugler wrote. “This kind of monitoring is a cornerstone to sustainable water solutions across the developing world.”

Other data-driven tools that Cisco supports include the Blue Planet Network technology platform and its SMS-based reporting tool. Read more about Cisco’s funding strategy for Critical Human Needs, and let us know how you’ve used WASH data to inform your work in the comments below.

Young girl filling jerricans in the Ogurotapa village of the Pallisa district, Southeast Uganda. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Young girl filling jerricans in the Ogurotapa village of the Pallisa district, Southeast Uganda. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Editor’s Note: We pose four questions to Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network, on how collaborative partnerships can scale the impact of multi-sector programs. 

Tell us about the H2O+ Uganda initiative BPN helped to launch last year.

H2O+ is a multi-sector initiative designed to eliminate the root causes of poverty. We developed the H2O+ initiative to reduce morbidity and mortality rates, and promote economic development in Uganda by integrating five related initiatives: (1) improved access to sanitation; (2) improved access to safe water; (3) improved community hygiene practices; (4) strengthened capacity at district and community health facilities; and (5) increased school enrollment of girls. 

ILF drilled a borehole well in the Ogiroi village for the H20+ program. 1,373 children and villagers will have safe drinking water from this water source. Credit: International Lifeline Fund

ILF drilled a borehole well in the Ogiroi village for the H20+ program. 1,373 children and villagers will have safe drinking water from this water source. Credit: International Lifeline Fund

H2O+ was piloted successfully in Pallisa, a district in Southeast Uganda, in 2012. The program brings clean water solutions and improved capacity to health clinics as well as communities. Five borehole wells were constructed near health clinics providing 6,392 villagers living in these five communities with direct access to clean water.  Additionally, those traveling from afar to these health clinics will have access to clean water, which we have calculated as approximately 4,000 visitors per year per health clinic. Because of the strategic placement of the wells, the program will benefit 25,600 people annually in these five communities.

How did BPN set up a private-public partnership to launch H2O+ in Uganda?

Boys playing near the Obutet borehole well where 2,610 people now have access to safe drinking water. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Boys playing near the Obutet borehole well where 2,610 people now have access to safe drinking water. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Once we formed the H2O+ concept, we identified key players at the local, regional, national, and international levels to build a unique collaborative model that could be replicated across Uganda. With a network of nearly 100 WASH members working in 27 countries, we invited one of our members, International Lifeline Fund (ILF), to take the lead on implementing the program. ILF is a nonprofit whose mission is to reduce human suffering through WASH initiatives, fuel-efficient stove programs, and micro-enterprise. They have constructed more than 200 borehole wells in Uganda serving over 150,000 people. Their demonstrated expertise in Uganda and entrepreneurial approach aligned well with the H2O+ model. 

ILF Water and Sanitation Team in Uganda working on the H20 Health+ project. Credit: International Lifeline Fund

ILF Water and Sanitation Team in Uganda working on the H20 Health+ project. Credit: International Lifeline Fund

H2O+ was launched in partnership with ReachScale, a company that brings social innovators, including corporations, NGOs, and governments, together to scale initiatives that increase innovation and impact.

Management Sciences for Health played a critical role in the planning stages of H2O+. They manage healthcare clinics throughout Uganda, and around the world, and implement WASH activities through advocacy, community mobilization, and hygiene and health education.

Local governments in the district of Palissa and community leaders were involved in H2O+ planning, baseline research, and analysis and implementation. Africa AHEAD  joined H2O+ and will introduce Community Health Clubs in Phase II as the best way to ensure a community-led approach to water and sanitation program development.

What was BPN’s approach to integrating the 5 related initiatives (water, sanitation, hygiene, health, and education) and identifying metrics?

The H2O+ initiative recognizes that health, water, sanitation, hygiene, and education are inextricably linked at the local level, as shown in the diagram below. H2O+ partners have experience leveraging their work to solve multiple community issues. BPN asked its partners: “How can we impact multiple aspects of community poverty?” rather than “How can we increase clean water, or how can we decrease visits to the health clinic?” The answers led to H2O+, an integrated approach to poverty alleviation. BPN worked with its partners to agree upon the project model, planning, implementation, and monitoring components. H2O+ partners agreed upon a common set of metrics that will be reported and analyzed on BPN’s platform.  

Source: Management Sciences for Health, BPN and Reach Scale

Source: Management Sciences for Health, BPN and Reach Scale

What were the challenges, lessons learned, and positive outcomes of coordinating the different stakeholders and getting everyone on board?

A girl from the Ogurotapa village where the Obutet borehole well was drilled in January 2013. Credit: Rudi Dundas

A girl from the Ogurotapa village where the Obutet borehole well was drilled in January 2013. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Agreeing on how to operate together was the largest challenge of H2O+, given the multi-level commitment of each partner. 

H2O+ planning was launched with several virtual planning meetings, and followed up with a site visit in Kampala, Uganda with representatives of several H2O+ partners. The program structure, metrics, and roles were discussed virtually, while the in-country visit was essential for building trust amongst district officials and H2O+ partners. As Dan Wolf, ILF’s founder and executive director explains, “The lesson always is to lay the groundwork well in advance of beginning operations.” Dan and his team realized that building collaborative relationships with local government officials was difficult without a foundation of understanding. “The problem was a lack of familiarity and trust with a new organization. We learned that we can always do a better job of explaining and leveraging our experience to show the District Water Offices the benefits of our partnership.”

H2O+ partners are now looking at economic development opportunities for women. Empowering women to make and sell clean cook stoves is a unique addition to a traditional water or health program. Carbon accreditation will generate a revenue stream that pays for equipment maintenance and community education. This multi-sector model has attracted funders because they see the opportunity to leverage partner integration for greater program outcomes.

The takeaways are:

  • Detail planning and role delineation up front is key. 
  • Combine the virtual with the physical. Being virtual encourages creative solutions.  Getting together in person builds trust that strengthens partnerships.
  • Be honest about evaluating progress and results. Always be open to refining the process for greater impact and stronger partnership. Measure, measure, measure.
  • Celebrate successes together, no matter how small. Partnerships are hard work, so it’s important to remind people every time you make progress toward your common goal. 

Editor’s Note: This post highlights an interview with John Anner of the East Meets West Foundation on how a technology platform and online collaborative network can solve barriers to growth, and scale the impact of their WASH programs. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.

How do you see technology scaling your Clean Water and Sanitation Program to provide more people in impoverished, rural areas with greater access to safe water and improved sanitation?

A 5-year-old girl in Da Nang, Vietnam benefits from an East Meets West Foundation project, which is tracked and managed on Blue Planet Network’s platform. Credit: Christine Krieg

A 5-year-old girl in Da Nang, Vietnam benefits from an East Meets West Foundation project, which is tracked and managed on Blue Planet Network’s platform. Credit: Christine Krieg

East Meets West Foundation (EMW) has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2006 to plan, manage, and track over 40 WASH projects. We needed to find a partner whose technology services could help us scale and be more effective. We have uploaded nearly $1,000,000 worth of WASH projects on Blue Planet Network’s technology platform, increasing the impact of our projects for nearly 60,000 people in Cambodia and Vietnam. Blue Planet Network programs and services allows us  to spend less time inputting our project data and more time planning and implementing sustainable projects and learning from other NGOs doing similar work. Through the technology platform, we track our projects to make them even more scalable.

Can you provide an example of one of your WASH projects and how a tracking and management system is helping to scale your work even further?

Soramarith Secondary School students drinking clean water from a new water system at their school. Credit: Christine Krieg

Soramarith Secondary School students drinking clean water from a new water system at their school. Credit: Christine Krieg

One project in particular that we piloted in Cambodia was our Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project in the Kampong Chhnang Province, located 90 km east of Phnom Penh and one of the poorest provinces in the country. This is the first EMW clean water and sanitation project in Cambodia. We were able to secure funding for this pilot project and to expand our work further in Cambodia. The project enhanced the quality of life for 4,175 people in this area by increasing their access to clean water and improving hygienic and sanitary conditions. Today, we have four Cambodia projects helping approximately 12,000 people gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Being able to plan and track this project on an online technology platform that both our head office and our field offices could access improved communication and sped up our expansion plans without increasing cost.

Uploading the majority of our project data on an open-access system allows us to easily share the impact of our work and critical information on how we are improving WASH practices with international agencies, foundations, and state, federal, and local governments. 

How do you see the use of technology helping you launch new initiatives?

Recently, we were awarded a $10.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant will enable us to improve sanitation and hygiene practices among the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia. The right technology support is critical to our output-based approach and the success of our program. Since our expertise lies in program design and field work, and we don’t have the capacity, know-how, or resources to build our own WASH technology system, we use Blue Planet Network’s tools and services to help us plan, implement, and monitor our international programs. 

How exactly will monitoring and reporting help you achieve your Gates Foundation grant goals?

Screenshot of EMW’s Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project on Blue Planet Network’s platform.

Screenshot of EMW’s Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project on Blue Planet Network’s platform.

Using a project tracking and management system will help us increase the effectiveness and impact of our Gates Foundation $10.9 million program. We need to be able to track 1.7 million people in 344,000 households and 290 communes in Vietnam and Cambodia on the platform. We need a technology system that focuses on the full life of a project — from planning to implementation, and post implementation/monitoring — not just the final well or toilet. Other data we plan to track includes: region and time period, project challenges and successes, diversity and quantity of people impacted (women, children, low income), water volume and quality, water and sanitation usage, and more. And, we need to deliver ongoing project progress, data, and long-term monitoring reports online for easy access and full transparency to all our funders. This is invaluable data that we can share with stakeholders, and share with other NGOs so they can learn what worked best for us and the challenges we faced. We can even show funders or other NGOs how the communities are actively involved from the start, and empowered to manage everything from maintenance to financing to ensuring all community members live up to their commitments. The ability to customize the platform to meet all these needs will enable us to achieve greater results.

Going forward, we also want to use Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting service to enable our cell phone-equipped communities, partners, and personnel to monitor and report on all our safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, we will be able to quickly see the reported texts and to provide immediate advice to remedy a challenge. SMS is a practical technology for us because most of our projects are located in very rural and marginalized communities of Cambodia and Vietnam. This service will scale the sustainability of our programs by reaching thousands of children and families living in some of the most high-need villages and empowering them to monitor and sustain their own community-led WASH systems.  

How would collaborating with other NGOs benefit your work and increase accountability?

Soramarith Secondary School students celebrating clean drinking water. Credit: Christine Krieg

Soramarith Secondary School students celebrating clean drinking water. Credit: Christine Krieg

As a member of Blue Planet Network, we participate actively in a semi-annual peer review process to share best practices with other implementing organizations working on similar programs around the world. We have reviewed 34 WASH applications since we joined the network in 2006. This has been a valuable learning experience for us. Additionally, 11 of our applications have been peer reviewed by other NGO members on the platform. These WASH organizations and leaders have included Dr. Meera Smith of Project Well, Lynn Roberts of Agua Para La Salud, and Carolyn Meub of Pure Water for the World. In order to complete the peer review process, we have to answer very technical and in-depth questions about our projects.

During our 2011 Cambodia project peer review, Lynn Roberts noted, “The Andoung Snay and Andoung Chrey Clean Water Project systems seem dependent on electricity. How reliable is the supply and is the cost included in the maintenance?” That discussion made us think more about contingencies on many levels. We welcome questions from fellow experts who aren't too close to our work. They help us make sure our project plans are designed for sustainability and have the full potential of addressing the WASH challenges in rural communities throughout Cambodia and Vietnam. 

Our former Water, Sanitation, & Environment Specialist with over 25 years of experience in planning, managing, and evaluating rural development projects, Rick McGowan believes that, “People who have more experience in the water development business have an obligation to help tutor and encourage those who have less experience...” And we couldn't agree more! We know that together — as one network, made up of many minds and sharing one purpose — we can collaborate and share learning to better plan, implement, and monitor sustainable water programs globally. 

One of Blue Planet Network’s founding members, Project Well, is an organization that brings safe drinking water to rural communities in an arsenic-affected district of West Bengal, India. Credit: Rudi Dundas

One of Blue Planet Network’s founding members, Project Well, is an organization that brings safe drinking water to rural communities in an arsenic-affected district of West Bengal, India. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s technology, tools, and services, along with learning from successful pilot projects among Blue Planet Network’s global WASH members. It was authored by Silke Knebel, development director of Blue Planet Network

SMS texting is today’s most widely used mobile data service, especially in some of the most rural and marginalized communities around the world. SMS traffic reached 7.8 trillion messages in 2011 globally. As text messaging has grown ubiquitous, so too has its potential as a simple, inexpensive way for NGOs to reach rural communities and address the global water crisis.

Professionals in the WASH sector understand that there are more mobile phones in the global South than toilets. The need for utilizing mobile technologies in designing sustainable water and sanitation systems is clear. 

Blue Planet Network created its SMS-based reporting tool to scale the global efforts of its members. Operating across 27 countries, we connect NGOs, funders, academics, and community members to plan, implement, monitor, and collaborate on safe drinking water projects. We do this through our online technology platform, SMS reporting services, and peer review process. Our technology solutions empower NGOs to increase the impact, efficiency, and sustainability of their water projects.  

Project Well utilizes Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting tool to provide status reports on water projects that use modern bore-dug wells. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Project Well utilizes Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting tool to provide status reports on water projects that use modern bore-dug wells. Credit: Rudi Dundas

Earlier this year, Blue Planet Network began a pilot of its simple SMS-based monitoring system in India. India’s population of 1.2 billion is made up of 929 million mobile phone users — a colossal 77% of the population. Blue Planet Network’s service enables communities, and our NGO member organizations equipped with cell phones, to monitor and report on safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, our network members can provide immediate assistance in the form of expert advice to remedy a challenge. Since deployment, 5 of our members: Ekoventure, Gram Vikas, Palmyra, Project Well and Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) have utilized the tool to increase the impact and sustainability of more than 13 water and sanitation projects across India. 

Blue Planet Network CEO Lisa Nash explains that, “The challenge in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is that a great deal of attention is paid to project implementation — the new ecosan toilet, the new hand-washing station, or the new arsenic-free well. But unfortunately up to half of these projects can fail within the first five years — not because of poor implementation, but because there wasn’t enough thought about sustainability at the outset.” 

Villagers in Endiyur, from the Marakkanam Block of Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu, India, are assessing the durability of toilets during a Palmyra working group training on sanitation and hygiene. Credit: Palmyra

Villagers in Endiyur, from the Marakkanam Block of Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu, India, are assessing the durability of toilets during a Palmyra working group training on sanitation and hygiene. Credit: Palmyra

Palmyra, a WASH implementer in the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu, India, has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2010 and uses our platform and SMS mobile texting services to improve their water program monitoring and analysis. Palmyra’s program managers send in weekly field status project reports via SMS texting. These messages are captured and uploaded onto our platform for peers, funders, and WASH implementers to view and monitor project effectiveness and impact. 

Blue Planet Network has dedicated a staff person to work with each SMS pilot participant. We have learned that reinforcing communication has to be ongoing or it’s easy to see a decline in participation. We also had to ensure that our service could be viewed in English (so the entire network could learn) and in the local language (so that field staff and community members can add value and input). 

“The power of SMS is the power to let anyone participate,” says Lisa. “We've already seen text messaging in fundraising, but now we’re seeing how it is enabling communities to take charge of the sustainability of projects and increase transparency across the sector. And this can happen anywhere in the world. Simplicity is power.”

Our SMS-based reporting tool will soon be deployed in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where arsenic and pesticide-laden drinking water threatens the health of migrant workers.

A woman in San Joaquin Valley, California who is exposed to nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. Credit: Erin Lubin

A woman in San Joaquin Valley, California who is exposed to nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. Credit: Erin Lubin

One million people in California lack reliable access to clean water; and 1 out of every 10 people living in California's agricultural areas is at risk of exposure to harmful levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a report released in March 2012 by the University of California, Davis.

In partnership with our member, Community Water Center, we seek to create a community-driven water solution to mitigate the threat of high levels of nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. The program will provide alternative water filtration solutions, sustainable support, and financing for low-income communities in San Joaquin Valley. 

The San Joaquin communities receiving access to clean water through this program will utilize our SMS-based mobile texting service to ensure that their clean water system is delivered and used accurately, and is sustainable and economic to operate. When this program is implemented, over a thousand low-income San Joaquin families will be able to send in text messages about the status of their safe drinking water, a service never before provided in the region. We are thrilled to provide a simple, yet powerful service that could drastically change how communities engage in their water solution.

Blue Planet Network’s SMS-based texting service empowers communities to take charge of their water systems and allows entire organizations to learn and share efficiently. SMS reporting is scaling our efforts to impact greater numbers of communities with measurable need. We have much to learn to make this service even more valuable. In the next few years, we hope to launch our SMS texting service in all 27 countries so that all of our members can increase the long-term impact of their water programs. 

Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network

Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s long-standing peer review and crowd-sourcing platform, along with examples of collaboration and knowledge sharing among BPN’s members. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network

What if there was a way for the WASH sector to unlock the hidden knowledge of sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation programs? 

Blue Planet Network (BPN), an online global platform and network of 90+ WASH funders and implementing organizations, is designed to encourage collaboration, increase impact, and promote a cross-sector focus on project results and lessons learned. This is complemented by an expert crowd-sourcing process — the heart of BPN. Members “peer review” other organizations seeking feedback on their project implementation plans. Utilized collaboratively in a safe space, the peer review process is aimed at unlocking the tremendous knowledge of the global WASH sector. After five years of peer reviewing and crowd-sourcing, we have seen an increase in member standards, discussion, and accountability. 

BPN’s WASH community began in 2006 when five WASH NGOs — recognized for their innovation and impact — came together to build a collaborative online forum to improve each other’s programs. Introducing the peer review concept was a new challenge; we knew it would take time to build a large community of NGOs and funders committed to sharing their valuable project knowledge for the good of the sector. Over time, however, these efforts paid off. Our members have shown us so many ways to use our platform.

The BPN member stories below show how the WASH sector — empowered by technology — can collaborate, share learning lessons, and continually help improve WASH sector program impact.

  • Photo by Annette Fay, Blue Planet Network

    Community Water Center (CWC) and BPN are developing a program in San Joaquin Valley, CA, to help 2,600 people living with nitrate and arsenic-contaminated drinking water. The groundwater has been contaminated with nitrates from the heavy agricultural pesticides used, and from naturally occurring arsenic. Project Well, a BPN member working on arsenic-free wells in West Bengal, India, will support CWC’s efforts by sharing their experience.
  • Aguayuda, from Colombia, changed their local staffing plans after applying for membership and discussing staffing options with BPN members Agua Para La VidaEl Porvenir (Nicaragua), and Agua Para La Salud (Guatemala). 
  • East Meets West (Vietnam, Cambodia) suggested improvements to hygiene practices of a project by Indian BPN member, Ekoventure, that reduced overall costs and improved project sustainability. 
  • The Chagrin Valley, Ohio Rotary Club, a BPN funding member, facilitated the independent monitoring of projects implemented by member Aqua Clara International in Kenya by local Kenyan Rotarians. 
  • “Peer visits” in 2011 were launched to empower members from a common region to connect with others in the field, suggest improvements, and train together. The Samburu Project hosted fellow members, Tanzania Mission to the Poor and Disabled (PADI), Aqua Clara International, Sabore Oyie in Kenya and Rajesh Shah of BPN to review their work in northern Kenya, suggest ways to improve sustainability, and share field experiences.  
  • Gram Vikas and WOTR, Indian BPN members — and the first two recipients of the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize — have advised members on their MANTRA and participatory watershed development programs. The 2012 Kyoto World Water Grand Prize winner, Katosi Women Development Trust (Uganda), is connected to BPN through a long-time member, Global Women’s Water Initiative, and we hope to promote collaboration among these grassroots leaders. 

We have seen a significant increase of funder interest in WASH projects because BPN directly connects funders to NGOs and project communities. Although funders may be continents away, they still have an up-close look and hands-on tool to monitor and track project planning, implementation, and impact through our platform. This transparent process increases funder engagement and builds confidence in future funding and investment.  

Funding ongoing monitoring efforts is also a cost-effective way to ensure investment dollars continue to have the impact funders seek. Currently, approximately 30 funders, WASH experts and observers, and over 60 international agencies track WASH projects on BPN’s online platform. 

Through our close work with WASH funders, NGOs, and communities, we have come to understand that there is no “one size fits all” solution to address the global WASH crisis. Each community and culture is unique, reinforcing the need for an innovative community-owned strategy. By bringing people together to transfer and share knowledge, we enable them to learn what’s been tried, what works, and what doesn't, and then to apply that knowledge to their own unique context. Establishing a culture of learning within and among organizations is vital to improve project outcomes, lower costs, and increase accountability.  

Building upon experience and member input, BPN is launching its next generation online platform, “BPN 2.0,” in late 2012. With the growing demand for BPN’s WASH platform, there also comes the need for expanded reporting and analytics, more funder-focused services, project post-implementation tracking, and simplified user experience. BPN will be sharing its work in the coming months with members and other interested organizations in the WASH sector. We look forward to learning from the experience of others to make our offering as valuable as it can be in our common effort to enable sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation for all.   

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