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Water crisis runs much deeper than digging a well

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Courtesy of Water for People

(Read caption) Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People (here visiting India), says success in overcoming the world's water crisis involves more than just digging more wells. What's needed is the harder, less glamorous work of monitoring and maintaining water systems, he says.

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It's easy to tell a powerful and heart-rending story about the lack of clean water that afflicts millions of people.

Paint a picture: A young girl must walk miles down a dusty road to collect water from a contaminated well or stream and then haul it home on her back. The journey takes so long that she can't take time to attend school. The water itself is so polluted that it causes illnesses in her family, perhaps keeping other family members from working or attending school.

It's a tragic picture that rightfully elicits funds from well-meaning donors. But it's only part of the story.

For decades aid organizations have been drilling wells and installing taps and hand pumps all over the developing world. But while some progress in improving access to clean water has been achieved, it hasn't been as dramatic as the number of these projects would suggest.

Why? Because a large percentage of wells and hand pumps fall into disrepair and are abandoned only a few years after they are installed. Pipes break, spare parts are unavailable, or people with the technical expertise to make repairs are nowhere to be found.

"People are walking past broken taps and going back to polluted water sources," says Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit group Water for People. Up to 60 percent of water projects fail within 18 months to two years, Water for People says. "[The problem goes] way beyond just banging in infrastructure."

What's needed is the harder, less glamorous work of monitoring and maintaining water systems, Mr. Breslin says. That's why his organization pledges to monitor all of its water projects for 10 years after installation to make sure they are still in operation. The idea is that a project built to last – and properly maintained – costs less in the long run.

Breslin was speaking just prior to World Water Day, founded by the United Nations in 1993. This year the 20th World Water Day is being marked tomorrow, March 22.

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