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World Water Day: A Billion People Worldwide Lack Safe Drinking Water

Q&A with Gary White of WaterPartners International

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In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22 as World Water Day. Every year on that date, people worldwide participate in events and programs to raise public awareness about what many believe to be the world’s most serious health issue—unsafe and inadequate water supplies—and to promote the conservation and development of global water resources.

More than a billion people—almost one-fifth of the world’s population—lack access to safe drinking water, and 40 percent lack access to basic sanitation, according to the 2nd UN World Water Development Report. World Water Day 2007 will be guided by the theme “Coping with Water Scarcity” under the leadership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The following interview with Gary White, executive director and co-founder of WaterPartners International, provides additional insight into the importance of World Water Day and the global effort to increase the supply of safe drinking water. WaterPartners International is a nonprofit organization committed to providing clean drinking water to communities in developing countries.

Q: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become interested in and committed to sustainable water projects?

White: I became interested in this because I saw it as the intersection of one of the world’s greatest needs and my greatest passion. The roots of that lie in my parents, teachers and my faith. Those influences inspired in me the need to dedicate my life to issues of social justice.

Water itself emerged because of experience I had as an undergraduate in the slums of Guatemala City—witnessing children playing in areas saturated by raw sewage and taking their drinking water from disease-ridden water sources helped me to understand safe water as the world’s greatest need that I could help address. My studies in civil engineering seemed to provide a good fit for tackling the global water crisis.

Q: Why did you start WaterPartners International, and how does it differ from other water projects?

White: The start of the organization was driven by two key realities: 1) people in the U.S. were oblivious to the global water crisis and 2) many projects that were constructed were going into disrepair.

WaterPartners is different because early on we took a hard look at why projects fail and built into our approach best practices that are associated with sustainability. Working exclusively through local partners, requiring community leadership in projects, addressing sanitation and hygiene education are some of the key elements of our work. Integrating these in a way to catalyze great projects set us apart when we first started in 1990. With many of these now widely accepted by many organizations as minimum standards, we now are pushing forward with new innovations.

We are different because we don’t see our role as simply sinking one more well in one more village, but also as finding ways to multiply our efforts by playing a leading role in the international water supply space.

Q: How does the global water crisis affect international communities in particular?

White: The global water crisis is the leading cause of death and disease in the world, taking the lives of more than 14,000 people each day, 11,000 of them children under age 5. In addition to the health problems, women and girls spend more than 200 million hours every day walking to collect water from distant, often polluted sources—time that could be better spent on more productive endeavors such as work and school. When you combine these factors, it’s clear that the global water crisis is the single biggest problem facing the world’s poor, preventing them from reaching even the first rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

Q: What types of programs has WaterPartners implemented to help communities solve their own water supply problems in a sustainable fashion?

White: The key to the WaterPartners’ approach is involving the community. All WaterPartners projects are designed to empower communities, with local water committees overseeing construction and ongoing maintenance of the projects. Since the people who benefit have a real stake in the outcome, it helps to ensure that the projects are sustainable over the long term and won’t fall into disrepair.

Also, all of our projects have a health education component, which is vital because many of the people in the project areas lack a good understanding of sanitary practices. And finally, our most recent innovation is the WaterCredit Initiative, which brings a micro-finance approach to water for the first time. By offering small loans where credit is virtually unknown, we give people a vital tool for addressing their water needs.

To learn more about the global water crisis and World Water Day, read the rest of the interview with Gary White of WorldPartners International on the next page.

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