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Kurt Soderlund, CEO of Safe Water Network

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in our “5 Questions for…” series, where we pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector. In this post, Safe Water Network’s founding CEO, Kurt Soderlund, responds to our questions.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?
Though billions of dollars are spent on water projects, very little has been directed at establishing a fact base for what works, what doesn’t, and why. As a sector, we can do more to validate which solutions:

  • are most reliable
  • meet quality standards
  • address behavioral challenges
  • are inclusive, and
  • ensure local ownership, participation, and buy-in

With this understanding, we can make a clear, compelling case for how money should be spent to develop and replicate the most impactful programs. We will also be well positioned to attract the level of investment necessary to scale up solutions that will deliver lasting benefits to the millions of people in need. 

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.
Organizing and aligning the capabilities of expert organizations is fundamental to our work and it’s why we have “Network” in our name. And because the challenge of providing safe water is immensely complex, our initiatives involve a variety of sector participants from different functional disciplines. Our collaborations include experts in engineering, public health, finance, and policy from government agencies, foundations, universities, the private sector and NGOs. We are fortunate to work with leading organizations like IBM, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, IFC, Tata trusts, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, and Merck.

Our partnership with PepsiCo provides a good example of how we apply technical expertise and local knowledge. They are one of our founding partners and they continue to help us develop and standardize low-cost systems and operating models in off-grid areas.  PepsiCo associates work alongside our team, addressing technical and operating issues in the field. They are helping us improve our quality assurance and training programs.

Through this work we are collectively gaining a better understanding of what it takes to operate successfully in these challenging markets.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?
Installing a water purification system is the easiest part; long-term success hinges on ensuring local ownership and operational, financial and environmental sustainability. We start the process by involving the community in every step, from the initial assessment to the design, construction, launch and subsequent operation of the water system.

To ensure long-term success and maximum impact, we focus on gaining participation from as many households in the community as possible. We’ve targeted 75% household participation for those living near a distribution point as a key metric because at that level, there is sufficient participation to make a positive impact on health and – if priced appropriately – sufficient revenue to cover operating expenses.

To reach this goal, we educate families on the benefits of safe water and encourage them to use it for drinking, cooking as well as for their hygiene needs. We do this by taking advantage of the daily contact we have with the village from our facility, which acts as a community center, and with local operators and a network of volunteers, who advocate the adoption and use of safe water.

By leveraging this ‘operating footprint’ we create a critical mass that provides the community the economic and health incentives required to sustain the water station for the long term.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?
I am very excited about the work IBM is doing with us to deliver real-time reporting and analysis of site performance. Our decentralized water stations operate in areas difficult to access and where skilled labor is scarce. The Remote Monitoring System will upload real-time operational and consumer data through telemetry, working through a local cell phone service to a central location. This makes it much more efficient to quickly identify, troubleshoot, and resolve challenges in remote locations.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?
A new collaborative tool developed by Google called Fusion Tables that allows you to visualize large datasets on maps, timelines, and charts is quite impressive. The Pacific Institute and Circle of Blue worked with Google to upload an enormous amount of global water data. The result is a simple yet dynamic tool that lets users visually compare countries and regions by statistical indicators such as water availability, diarrhea deaths, and GDP per capita. This demonstrates just one example of how knowledge sharing technology can be used to better inform ourselves and the public of deep truths hidden in data.

Editor’s Note: Our Spotlight On... series shines a light on funders and NGOs working to bring critical solutions to water, sanitation, and hygiene issues. This guest blog, the second in our series, was authored by Maggie Kohn, director of corporate responsibility at Merck. A global health care company, Merck discovers, manufactures, and sells medicines, vaccines, and animal health products. Recently, Merck has become an emerging player in the WASH sector as well. 

Spotlight On... Merck

Merck and Safe Water Network are working together to bring sustainable water solutions to the rural poor in India. The new partnership will provide safe water access to another 20,000-30,000 people, such as this mother and child in Warangal in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

I sense the question on everyone's mind when I introduce myself at a WASH event: "Merck is a global health care company. So, why is she here?" 

The explanation is quite simple: Merck's mission is to help the world be well. Clean water is at the foundation of this promise.

Merck's entrance into the WASH arena is relatively recent, and occurred in parallel with the expansion of our business into emerging markets such as India, Brazil, China, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As Merck began to ask local ministers of health in these countries how we could help them address their greatest health challenges, the issue that came up often was lack of access to clean water and its huge toll on the health of their people. 

Until the most basic health needs — access to food, water, sanitation, and hygiene — are addressed, large segments of populations in emerging markets cannot benefit from our products, including life-saving vaccines. For Merck to be a true partner and commit to helping our customers address their most formidable challenges, we realized WASH must be part of the overall strategy. 

Starting in 2010, we spent about a year determining how to "dip our toe" into the WASH field. While we have a long history in public-private health partnerships, none have been specific to clean water. Luckily, we found that many of our existing partners, including CARE, the World Bank, PSI, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are also involved in WASH. We engaged them in conversations about their work, joined groups such as Global Water Challenge, and made connections with companies such as Coke, Dow, Pepsi, and P&G who are already doing good work in this field. We also talked to shareholders such as the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and became a signatory to the UN's CEO Water Mandate. 

These conversations confirmed for us the critical importance of addressing WASH (we were on the right path!), but also that we could not do it on our own. We needed to team up with the right partners. Many people we spoke with suggested starting with one geographic focus — rather than pilots in several countries, as we had initially been considering — and then expanding from there. Keeping their input in mind, we identified our initial focus area of southern and central India — both important markets for our business and both severely affected regions by WASH issues.

Our conversations also made us think hard about the kind of investment we wanted to make and the kind of impact we wanted to have. By that, I mean did we want to simply invest our money in bricks and mortar for hundreds of new water stations, which would basically require writing a check? Or did we want to invest in research-based projects that sought to determine the most effective ways to address the WASH challenge and thus create sustainable long-term approaches? What appealed to us about this latter approach is that we could apply the skills of our employees to help develop health impact studies, behavior change communications, and public advocacy outreach strategies. 

Out of this we developed our WASH strategy for India, which mirrors our core mission: to help the Indian population be well. Wherever we operate, the key to achieving this mission is a strong understanding of the health needs of our customers. Our strategy in India includes our products that address water-related diseases and our work with partners to change behaviors related to sanitation and hygiene. 

On World Water Day 2012, we announced a three-year partnership with the Safe Water Network (SWN). What we like about SWN is that they work through their projects to gain a better understanding of the environmental, socioeconomic, behavioral, and market challenges that prevent access to clean water. They pilot various approaches and models, and then take the learnings to identify sustainable models that can be scaled on a wide-spread basis. Our work with them will focus on Andhra Pradesh in southern India, where we will work to increase awareness of the importance of clean water and hygiene to drive behavior change. We plan to share key findings with the WASH sector and policy makers to help lead to more wide-scale change. Later this year, we will also be lending four or five Merck employees ("Fellows") to SWN for three to six months to work on a variety of projects, including a health outcomes assessment study, behavior change and quality assurance. These employees will benefit by gaining valuable insights about behaviors in these markets. 

We also decided to partner with UNHABITAT, Coca-Cola, and NDTV on a partnership called "Support My School" (SMS), which is working with local NGO partners to install water filtration systems, improved sanitation facilities, libraries, and new sports equipment to schools across India. In deciding to join, we felt that there is no place more important to start than with children. Not only do we want to improve the health of India's youngest citizens, but we want to ensure they are able to stay in school and get the education they need to lead India in the years to come. Children are also important messengers as they deliver WASH messages back to their families. In visiting schools outside Bhopal earlier this year, the impact was clear: the children were eager to show us their new latrines, and teachers indicated that attendance was up (some students were riding their bikes five miles to school). Students from near-by private schools had even switched to the SMS schools due to the better bathroom facilities. 

Our goals in both partnerships are to increase the number of people with access to clean water and increase awareness about sanitation and proper hygiene. In doing so, we expect to see decreased mortality and illness due to water-related disease, increased school attendance — particularly among adolescent girls, and increased economic productivity in those areas where we are focused — these will be the measurements we examine and build into our public reporting. 

While it's still early days for us, we've already learned a great deal. There are so many great partners out there and projects worthy of investment. But it's vital that we focus on what we want our impact to be and what we want to get out of this work as a business. This will not only lead to positive outcomes for the communities in which we invest, but also to the sustainability of Merck's involvement in this important space. 

Merck and the Safe Water Network have announced a three-year, $1.5 million partnership to increase access to safe water and reduce the effects of water-borne disease in impoverished communities in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Building on SWN's field activities in the region, the collaboration is designed to provide clean water to additional villages in Andhra Pradesh and develop demand-generation programs that increase household usage. The initiative addresses a critical need in India, where an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of disease is related to water contamination and poor sanitation and where more than a hundred and twenty thousand children under the age of five die each year from rotavirus diarrhea.

Together, Merck and Safe Water Network also will work to increase awareness of the importance of clean water and hygiene and drive behavior change. The campaigns will be assessed to measure their impact on safe water usage and improved health.

"Clean water is fundamental to the world's health and to Merck's mission of fighting disease and helping the world be well. Nowhere is this more true than in India, which faces a significant challenge related to clean water," said K.G. Ananthakrishnan, managing director of Merck in India. "Our partnership with Safe Water Network is a testament of our commitment to help reduce the impact of water-related illness in India and of Merck's overall efforts to improve health globally."

Source: “Merck and Safe Water Network Launch Initiative to Improve Water Access and Help Reduce the Impact of Water-Borne Disease in India.” Merck Company Press Release 3/20/12.

For additional WASH-related philanthropy news, see the news feed on WASHfunders.org.

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