Reprinted from Forbes.com
Billions lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Entrepreneurs are developing ways to solve these problems, but they can’t go it alone.
It’s not pretty. But it’s everyone’s business. Around the world, 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, and as a result, drink contaminated water. Even as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, clean and affordable water is a luxury for many.
Entrepreneurs continue to test ways to alleviate unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene problems. From creating new, cleaner water marketplaces to affordable, more eco-friendly toilets, social innovators – working hand in glove with local groups, corporations and governments – can help shift the tide of water and sanitation issues.
And perhaps nowhere is this on-the-ground innovation more apparent than in South America.
The heavy seasonal rains, earthquakes and other severe weather events over the past years have devastated infrastructure throughout Ecuador, Peru and neighboring countries, displacing millions of people and limiting already scarce access to clean water. Of Peru’s 8.9 million people living in rural areas, for instance, 3.3 million lack access to safe drinking water. And roughly 18 percent of Ecuadorians are in the same boat.
The timing for bold, cross-sector solutions is ripe in the region.
Water Crisis in Ecuador
As a volunteer at a hospital in Muisne, Ecuador in 2006, Alex Harding wanted to help stop the revolving door of children coming to the ER with acute diarrheal illnesses and chronic parasitic infections. Doctors would treat the children only to see them again for the same problems.
He listened intently to local water activists to better understand the reality of water and sanitation in Muisne.
In 2007 Alex launched Water Ecuador, which built water centers in Ecuador that sold clean water to families who could afford it and provided free water to those who could not. The revenue generated by sales paid the wages of local water managers and funded maintenance of its four main centers. The staff also provided community education programs at each water center.
“Obviously there was a steep learning curve,” says Alex, who is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. “But it was local knowledge and local efforts that made this work. All of the staff at the centers are Ecuadorian. They know the community and provide context for everything we do.”
After providing clean drinking water to thousands daily for nearly a decade, Water Ecuador evolved into Aquality International in 2015 with a more global focus. Now, the organization puts its muscle behind research. More specifically, Aquality works with water companies, governments, community groups and citizen-led organizations, especially in Latin America, to ensure that bottled water — including jugs, containers and individual bottles — remains safe all the way up to consumption.
This approach is more sustainable in the long-run because it delivers data and know-how to local activists and entrepreneurs and supports them in working with existing institutions and infrastructure to develop smart solutions.
A Toilet Solution in Peru
Isabel Medem worked in microlending technology and banking services when she discovered dry toilet technology. The German-Peruvian had studied social and development issues in Vienna, London, Madrid and Paris, but her passion to work with groups tackling poverty issues took her to Lima, Peruco-founder and friend Jessica Alterburger connected with Peruvian activists to experiment with a mobile toilet service.
Due to lack of public investment and water scarcity, 2 million people in Lima live in so-called shantytowns and use pit latrines in their homes. When waste accumulates, their homes and communities can become rife with infestation. The pit latrines contaminate the groundwater.
“Peruvians are passionate about changing these statistics,” says Isabel. “Access to improved sanitation was declared a human right in 2010 in Peru,” she says. All of this inspired her to help.
Isabel’s company, X-runner, manufactures and services clean, water-free toilets that separate and collect human waste. The toilets don’t require running water or hookups to sewer lines. X-Runner teams pick up the waste once a week and transport it to a composting facility.
“The pick-up service is key to our success,” says Isabel. Long after the company’s staff conducted the waste pick up services, Isabel continued to go to the pick-up sites herself. “I could have stopped earlier, but it was important for me to do anything that I asked others to do.”
Isabel, who became a finalist at the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneur Awards in 2013, plans to expand the X-Runner service to 15,000 households by 2018, saving 10 million liters of water every month and collecting more than 500 tons of human waste that would otherwise go into the ground.
The Power of Collaboration
Businesses that sustainably provide or resell water, install latrines and toilets, manufacture components or provide emptying services can change the water landscape and provide jobs and revenue to urban and rural areas. That is if they join forces with local water activists. This work requires bold and innovative solutions and connections with local people and resources. Anything else is a recipe for failure.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Changemakers like Isabel and Alex aren’t willing to wait for that to happen.
This article was produced as part of a two-part series profiling emerging entrepreneurs tackling sustainability issues around the world. To enter your idea into the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2017, apply here http://po.st/YEA or follow the conversation online at #Biz4Good.
Laura Wenner (@laurapwenner) is a writer who covers business, legal affairs and policy issues.