Creating a SUSTAINABILITY ecosystem

This post was inspired by this article. When I was reading it, I was thinking about the WASH (water access, sanitation and hygiene) sector. This is not a surprise because I am pretty much constantly thinking about it.

I thought, what would a sustainability [meaning, simplified: the ability of an installed water system to function after the organization that installed it has left] ecosystem look like?

“In the ocean, a reef provides a structure that protects fish, provides food, and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive.”

Using this example, the installed water system would be the fish (…or would the fish be the person using the water system?). What would the surrounding coral reef look like for the WASH sector? The ocean would be funding (as in the water would be the money…?). The coral would be local government. NGOs would be seaweed. Maybe the WASH sector right now would look a bit like the Great Barrier Reef and its current deteriorating state (sad…). The coral (local government) is being destroyed, weakened. The seaweed sustains the fish in the meantime but it is not a reliable source of food.

In the real world though (getting away from my marine metaphor) my initial thought is that the “ecosystem” would look something like this (yes, biased view, because I’ve been helping develop it). This is a platform for WASH sector stakeholders to promote the provision of lasting water services. It could be an on-line platform such as Or it could be a collection of organizations that give best practice advice for WASH project stakeholders. I also think WASH Cost and crowd-sourcing WASH data such as mWater and Akvo FLOW (FLOW is in development. Also I am planning a post about platforms such as mWater and FLOW) should be included in the ecosystem. They are tools that all stakeholders should be using.

As the article says:

Get the right people involved.

In this sector, that would mean promoting ownership by local government of water systems. It would mean getting donors to require long-term monitoring post project close-out (from when the grant agreement or contract is signed) of the system they are funding. One of the reasons that approx. 30% of WASH projects fail after 2-5 years is that the right people haven’t yet been involved in the sustainability dialogue. It’s donors and governments. They are the heavy-weights. NGOs will require monitoring of their systems if they are being required to by their donors.

In summary, there needs to be an environment (or ecosystem) in place that promotes WASH projects that actually last. Just what that looks like is to be determined. It something that I wholesomely intend to get to the bottom of.


Good night my WASH-y friends!


Innovative, creative, and simple ways to can water good enough to drink!!

Innovative, creative, and simple ways to can water good enough to drink!!


WASH-ing everything

It’s been busy over here! I (absolutely) love my job. Basically, it has me doing a lot of the kind of thinking that I want to post about here on H2dayO. As I adjust to the work, (it’s currently exhausting me!) I’ll start to post more.

I’ve been looking a lot at the sustainability of water systems over time from more of a financial stand point than I have been used to. I’m learning a lot. NO FREE WATER PLEASE. I love this website.

There are so many acronyms floating around in the WASH sector (even more than from this summer’s experience with the Navy). I was speaking with someone the other day about “WASH issues” and felt like a lot of a butthead when they had to stop me to ask what WASH stood for (Water Access, Sanitation and Hygiene). I really do not want to further this practice of speaking in wonky, acronym-y terms.

The problem here is that the WASH sector covers so much. You need acronyms when you have such long titles full of words like “sustainability”, “environment” and “water quality”.

On a more national note, I found this fascinating interactive report about opinions of American citizens of the national water crisis (? to be determined if crisis is the correct term).

As I said above, I’ve been thinking more about the financial backgrounds of water access issues. The part of the report that particularly fascinated me was titled “Unaware of Water Cost Drivers”.

Perceived factors:

  • water quality
  • utility company management
  • water use
  • access to water

Real factors (according to the Columbia Water Center):

  • financial factors (labor, debt, infrastructure improvements)
  • rate structure
  • water source
  • service population

Not sure yet if I agree with this assessment.

Feeling wonky in D.C.,


Should water be free?

Access to sufficient clean drinking water is a basic human right.

And this was only explicitly recognized in 2010 by the UN. Does that seem a bit late to you? (upcoming post about this issue soon — I wrote my senior thesis about it)

WHO (World Health Organization) defines “adequate access” as 20L/person/day within a 1 km distance. The factors that are addressed here are quality, quantity and distance of the user from the water source. This metric, however, does not engage with the issue of the cost of water.

I believe that clean drinking water should not be free. Ever. Never ever.

Let me break that down before you think I have no soul (I do think it should be free in short-term emergency mitigation situations such as in war time, at refugee camps and following natural disasters, what’s up Hurricane Sandy). I am a strong believer in the power of economics to influence human behavior. I am of the opinion that if you give something to someone for free, it will not be valued and maintained effectively by the recipient as much as if you had sold it to them. An investment will show a commitment to the product by the consumer. In this sense, I believe there should be flexibility in charging for water. Yes, it is a basic human right, but that does not mean it should be free.

Food is a basic human right. It is not free. Access to health care is a basic human right. It is not free (not in the US of A at least).

There should be boundaries though. I would not want to see a private enterprise come in, see an area afflicted by water scarcity and make a killing by charging ridiculously high rates for clean water because they have a monopoly on the only water source. I think making such a large profit off a vulnerable population is unethical. A classic case of the (perceived) evil engineering company coming in and robbing the poor is the “Cochabamba Water War”. In this historic protest, the contract with Bechtel was canceled due to a popular uprising. I honestly believe that Bechtel could have benefited the area (yes, this is speculation). They aren’t doing too well as it stands with the system people protested to keep:

But the results, in terms of access to clean and affordable water, are far more mixed. Half the homes in the area served by the public water utility still have no water service; many of those that do have service only have it a few hours a week. A decade after people shed blood in the streets to retake their water, the company that manages it remains riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency—a source of graft for the city’s mayor and the union that represents the company’s workers.

Governmental regulation and public-private partnerships can prevent exploitation from happening. Well-managed public utilities (shout-out to George Hawkins and his fantastic management of DC Water) can charge reasonable prices for water. A private entity can work with the public utility to increase efficiency. Utilities do need money to maintain their systems of water delivery after all! If they have help from the government in the form of subsidies they would be able to effectively deliver water and maintain their delivery system (old pipes!).

As I spoke about in an earlier post, giving out free water systems will not solve the water crisis. There needs to be a (reasonable) charge for a water system or a water delivery service. This can help ensure that the consumer has the income available to purchase spare parts for an installed system later on when it breaks. It also promotes conservation. You are more likely to conserve a resource you had to pay for.

Access to water is a basic human right. This does not mean that it is unethical to charge for it. You do go to the grocery store don’t you (well, not today, the grocery stores around here are certainly bare…)? Same idea.

I strongly disagree with this article.

Going to blow away in D.C.,


Life at Sea

We, Monique and Ariel, met in line for a flight going from Honolulu, Hawaii to Guam.

Wait, what?


…who goes to Guam?

Well, the United States Navy does. We were flying to Guam to board a Naval hospital ship, the USNS Mercy.

That’s the big ol’ girl.

So tonight’s post is going to be a bit of a photo chronicle of the mission for us enginerds.

We hung out in that ward a lot.

Indonesia: water testing at a clinic and a police station.

Philippines: team huddle! We did the most construction in the Philippines.

Some med student friends from UCSD!

Damage control in the US Navy was giving a fire hose demonstration to local firefighters in the Philippines.

The filters we were installing all over the place (there will be a post about that can o’ worms).

WOMEN engineers and JAG! And, an Australian.

Having a party at sea, another ship pulled up beside us and gave us some gas and strawberrys. Big THANK YOU to the USNS Richard E. Byrd for that one.

Seawall design, construction, and retrofit in tsunami inundation zone of the Philippines.

Lots of laughs while washing hands! Clean water AND hand washing?!

We’re all going to change the world together!!

Set-up demo of the slow sand filters (sigh, Ariel will tell you why later).

water, tubig, agua, thuk, nuoc ❤

Testing 1,2,3!

Oooohhh yeahhh!

Sometimes you just gotta jump!

~ Monza and Sayze

Philanthropists shouldn’t just give money to charities

This is a blog post about my favorite article up there ^^^^ (read it. memorize it. show it to everyone you know and discuss it in depth). In many ways, the article is talking directly to me.

“For instance, engineering students would not be allowed to implement a project in the United States, it is not clear why they are allowed, and even encouraged, to implement in developing countries.”

Yes, addressed to me.

I implemented a (water and sanitation) project in a developing country as an engineering student. I was encouraged to do so by family, professors, and friends. Everyone gave me such positive feedback when I told them about it. My father bragged to his co-workers that I was his daughter that was going to “save the world”. There were a multitude of (rather hefty) grants offered at my university for just these projects. There was even a major that was created in my time there that focused wholly on global development.

And yet, I did it wrong.

[Side note: I am not putting blame on anyone in particular, including myself; I believe the push for projects like the one I did is a systematic issue and a product of old thinking. I want to get the new, creative and effective thinking out there.]


A Case Study: Our “Engineering Students in Belize” Project

  • built a large-scale (for 70 users) slow-sand filtration system.
  • installed 35 HydrAid water filters in a small, rural village in Belize.

We wanted to make it a sustainable project. We spoke to local government officials (even got them to come to the isolated village and sample the water. Once…), we spoke to the community “Water Board”, we organized a community-wide health workshop, we used PhotoVoice at the beginning of the project to see how people used water, we put up an anonymous message board at the local store where community members could ask us questions about the project and we could respond, we talked to everyone over and over (and over), we shared watermelons, armadillo, chicken, beans and rice, all manner of food to try and forge relationships. I went back to the community four times in total and lived there for 2 months during one summer. We worked with a group of local university students who we put in charge of continuing the project after we left.

But instead of requiring a financial contribution for the improved water systems we offered, we settled for “sweat-equity”. The recipients of the filters were made to participate in multiple user workshops. They didn’t pay us with money but with their time and attention. We had discussed charging for these filters but I will not go into the long, drawn-out story of why we gave them out, effectively, for free.

So there in lies the evil of the traditional hydro-philanthropists. They finance the project 100%. As Breslin notes in his article, giving out free services can distort the market. Furthermore, it can facilitate corruption. Certain governments have been known to allocate funds to improve the infrastructure of an area. When an NGO comes in and independently finances a project that improves WASH infrastructure in that area, the government officials will write off the community as “benefited” and pocket the funds.

A new(ish) initiative of requiring “sweat-equity” came to the surface in the WASH projects sector. NGOs and “well-meaning individuals” (like moi) thought that in the stead of cold hard cash, the fact that someone was willing to lay pipe or aid in the construction would demonstrate their commitment to the system and therefore ability to maintain it. Breslin argues that this is false. Just because someone helped lay pipes does not mean that they have the financial capacity to replace a pipe that springs a leak six months after the NGO has left. Breslin states that there needs to be a comprehensive set of sustainability metrics that a recipient community must adhere to, such as affordability of local spare parts. Looking at these metrics, the project I did adhered to scarce few.

That makes me pretty sad.

So here I am, working at a non-profit that does WASH projects in Africa. I learned a lot from my mistakes and I want to, no need to, carry that into my job now. I never want to be part of a project that does not strictly adhere to the sustainability metrics that Breslin argues for.

People shouldn’t just throw money at NGOs. The NGOs and implementing individuals should have to defend their proposed project before it is funded. They should have to consider all the sustainability criteria before implementation begins. Effectively, there needs to be a test as strict as the show Shark Tank for all entities proposing a WASH project.

Take-away: What the “hydro-philanthropy” sector needs is its own version of Shark Tank.

Side note 2: I am not, as it may seem, obsessed with Ned Breslin.
Ok… maybe I am a little bit.

Love from (rainy) D.C.!