Complications of Being an Effective Do-Gooder

Editors Note: In this post, David Kreamer, Professor of Geoscience, a Graduate Faculty member in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and past Director of the interdisciplinary Water Resources Management Graduate Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, offers suggestions for the hydrophilanthropist wanting to make a positive impact on communities and ecosystems.
Northern Ghana. Photo Credit: David K. Kreamer

The Challenge

Say you wanted to put in a well in a small community that needed water, in an economically depressed part of the world. You did your homework on how a well could be built for sustainable, good quality water. You gathered the resources, knew the well would not dry up nearby springs because you understood the local hydrogeology, and had a pump design that could be supported by the community and repaired if broken in the future. You set up a system for the community to periodically test the water quality, ensuring it would remain safe.  Sounds perfect, right?

But what if that well was placed in the backyard of someone in the community that everyone disliked? You may have just started a local water war that could last generations.

There are a multitude of ways that a well-meaning hydrophilanthropic person or group, with clear objectives and an eagerness to improve the human condition, can make things worse. Rather than alleviate suffering, imprudent actions can reduce the quality of community life, and individual health and safety. Plunging unawares in one of countless pitfalls is surprisingly easy, particularly for those lacking a holistic view and having little background in water projects.

Perspectives and Strategies for Getting It Right – Some Suggestions

Water can help both communities and ecosystems by propelling agriculture and economic growth, ensuring improvements in health, reducing work absenteeism,  increasing opportunities for childhood education (which is sometimes gender-biased against girls who gather water), and  combating the effects of drought and climate change.

As many readers know, statistics suggest that the water and sanitation crisis will expand.  Estimates related to water scarcity indicate that approximately 3.4 million people, over half of which are children, die from lack of clean drinking water each year, and 748 million people do not have access to clean water. In addition to direct mortality from thirst and waterborne disease, mortality could be even greater because of cascading effects, such as death from malnutrition caused by water shortages to agriculture and herd animals. Sanitation statistics are even worse with the World Bank (2014) estimating 2.5 billion people don’t have access to improved sanitation and 1 billion practicing open defecation.

Here are a few suggestions for the hydrophilanthropist wanting to make a positive impact on communities and ecosystems:

  • Take a long term view. Studies support the idea that fewer, sustainable water and sanitation developments are more beneficial than numerous, short-lived developments which can be neglected and fall into disrepair.
  • Ensure follow up and sustainability. Make sure there are local resources, expertise, and educational programs for continued project viability. Consider regular sustainability audits.
  • Plan a post-project monitoring program, with community-based stewardship. Try to anticipate multiple outcomes for your project, and think about future, mid-course corrections (create Plan B, and maybe C and D).
  • Ensure that those who use water or sanitation facilities will be physically safe and secure. This may involve carefully planning the location of and access to facilities.
  • Also when considering location, make sure the science and engineering are right. Get experts and/or facilitators involved.  Wells that are too close to pit privies can cause disease. Wells that are hydrologically connected to springs or other wells could dry them up. A borehole in the wrong geologic media could have an adverse water quality that could poison people, domestic animals, and wildlife.
  • Seek engineering designs for wells and other facilities that are the appropriate technology for the community.  Sometimes low-tech is the right tech.
  • Include community education for two reasons. First, so outside people wishing to help a village can be educated by the community to understand local needs, cultural wealth and values, existing local resources, economic goals, religious appreciations, and identify gaps in human and physical resources. Second, outside people can work with locals to bring in additional educational resources, help establish  household education and action plans, and  explore possible connections and collaborations with nearby schools and universities.
  • Work with the local community to understand the social and moral norms. Research culture and traditions prior to your arrival, and ensure language translation accurately communicates ideas. It is not advantageous to impose pre-conceived values on a community. Pre-planning and pre-construction site visits can be key to establishing trust, understanding, and rapport.
  • Be aware of the political landscape. Be cognizant of the impacts of any local policies and laws, note any corruption and unrest, appreciate positive community resources, and determine how hydrophilanthropic work might best fit in.
  • Know the impacted population’s goals for economic development and specifically how a water or sanitation development can strategically help boost economic growth. Think about how your project fits into a livelihoods-based approach to community development.
  • Seek experienced project leadership for hydrophilanthropic efforts. Water and sanitation efforts with strong leadership, mentoring, technical expertise, and continuing communication among practitioners and stakeholders typically have built-in resilience, underlying confidence, and the perspective provided by that experience.

Keeping some of these principles in mind can direct hydrophilanthropy in a positive way and increase the efficacy of water and sanitation projects.

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