By Sara Corben
In areas where water is scarce, a well can provide a simple solution to the challenges faced by a family or village. There is no doubt that the charities working to build wells in Africa are making a huge difference and providing opportunities for improved health and happiness. But at the same time, wells only provide a short-term and small-scale fix to a problem which currently affects one sixth of the world’s population and is projected to affect a growing number of people in the future.
In an article published for the 2009 World Water Forum in Turkey, the International Institute for Environment and Development estimated that 50,000 recent boreholes, pumps and wells installed with foreign aid were dysfunctional and in need of maintenance. Collectively, these water supply points represent an investment of $215-$360 million.
With the objective of providing water to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, it is challenging for water charities relying on donations to address the need for large-scale and long-lasting solutions to water scarcity. To ensure that a well functions for many years, organizations must invest in the design of infrastructure, the choice of technology, the quality of construction and the continued maintenance of a water supply. Many charities, like The Water Project, are committed to managing water projects over time to ensure they last as long as possible. However, even with continued upkeep, the foundation estimates a well used by 500 people will last only ten years before requiring a complete overhaul or replacement.
Someone reading this might ask, “Are you suggesting foundations should stop building wells in developing nations?” and the answer to that would be “No. Absolutely not.” Wells go a long way to improve lives, and often they are the right solution for the time and place. But investments in water solutions should also be focused on long-lasting and far-reaching technologies which address a community’s need for water on a more profound level.
Technologies like desalination plants can provide water to as many as 20,000 people with a lifetime exceeding 25 years. That means that one desalination plant can displace the need for 40 individual wells as well as the replacement or overhaul of those wells ten years later. Investments in large-scale water infrastructure can lead to a wide range of dispersed benefits: Women can pursue careers rather than walking to procure water and excess water can be invested in improving agriculture. Larger projects, such as desalination projects, also often require the involvement of local authorities in order to procure permitting and can help foster a relationship between local government and citizens. With municipal government involvement and community-wide benefits, larger projects can provide the basis for a stable community and stimulated economy.
While wells certainly provide relief to millions in developing areas, it is important to invest in solutions which will not only provide communities with improved health, but with opportunities for community growth, local involvement, and wide-ranging benefits.