How Seattle helps with world's water challenges

We may have plenty of clean water for our own needs, but if anything that has only spurred more interest in helping the rest of the world.

Crosscut archive image.

Pam Elardo, center left, with Nepalese women.

We may have plenty of clean water for our own needs, but if anything that has only spurred more interest in helping the rest of the world.

Water is something most people in the Puget Sound region take for granted.  Yet in many developing nations, access to clean water and effective sanitation can spell the difference between life and death.

Unbeknownst to many, the Seattle-Puget Sound area is home to a cadre of nongovernmental organizations and government agencies engaged in projects abroad to assist the more than 783 million people who live without access to clean water in some of the poorest regions in the world. The local support for water and sanitation ranges from intensive nonprofit efforts in remote villages to major international undertakings and occasional consultations by government officials with colleagues in other nations.

Access to water is critical to good nutrition, a reality recognized by the World Water Day events here and elsewhere last month organized around the theme of water and food security. More than 70 percent of the water used globally goes towards agriculture.  One seventh of the world’s population, nearly one billion people, suffers from chronic hunger.  Over 3,000 children die everyday from lack of clean water.  Food production is dependent upon sufficient available water, which in turn requires reducing water pollution and promoting effective sanitation systems.

In the early 1980s, a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, Pam Elardo, supervised the construction of UNICEF-funded rural water supply systems that brought clean water to remote villages that lacked fresh water.  Elardo led a team of Nepalese trained technicians to design and build gravity-fed, spring systems, which transported water from as far away as 15 kilometers.  Through UNICEF, she also coordinated with a multinational team that included volunteers from Japan and the United Kingdom.

Since then, she has devoted her professional career to furthering that mission.  In 1999 Elardo founded the Living Earth Institute (LEI), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization whose goal is to aid international communities develop sustainable water resources. 

For the past 10 years, LEI has carried out projects in central and southeastern Nepal and Central America that target communities often overlooked by traditional aid organizations.  One of those successful projects partnered with community members to build single-family latrines and tube wells that provide clean water in the villages of Rajul and Mujeliya in the Dhanusha District of Nepal.  Developed in collaboration with the Women’s Development Service Center, the project took three years and $60,000 to build and now serves more than 4,000 people.  The project’s results also included 40 newly literate women and 44 women now able to generate their own income through LEI-sponsored programs.

An environmental engineer with 20 years of experience in developing countries such as Nicaragua and Nepal, Elardo, a Chicago native, worked at the Washington state Department of Ecology before assuming her current post as director of the King County wastewater treatment utility.

Another international development specialist, Jan Willem Rosenboom, began his career as a volunteer in rural Kenya. He later worked in Bangladesh on groundwater contamination projects with UNICEF and managed water and sanitation programs in Cambodia for the World Bank.  In addition, he served as a water and sanitation engineer for WaterAid and Oxfam UK in Sierra Leone and Cambodia.

Now senior project officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Sanitation and Hygiene program, Rosenboom continues that work. “Our work at the Foundation focuses on countries in Africa and Asia, where the number of people without access to an improved water source, or basic sanitation, is greatest.  Globally, there are more than twice as many people without access to sanitation — 2.5 billion — than there are people without access to an improved water source, or 878 million.”

The statistics for the South Asian subcontinent are equally sobering. Of the 1.2 billion people in India, 92 percent have access to an improved water source, but only 34 percent have access to sanitation, he added.

One of the Foundation’s initiatives is developing new technologies that make sanitation without sewers a feasible, affordable solution for millions of people.  The second is supporting the wide-scale implementation of effective approaches to rural sanitation. A third is focusing on policy and advocacy to inform governments and the international community about the effectiveness of those technologies.  In all three areas, the Foundation works in partnership with a number of international sector agencies including WaterAid, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank.

Another Seattle global health organization, PATH, is exploring ways to supply household water treatment and safe storage products to low-income consumers in the developing world.  Now in its sixth year, the Safe Water Project has designed several devices specifically for those consumers based on formative research and input from end users in countries such as India, Cambodia and Kenya. Once tested for durability and accurate use, prototypes of the devices have been licensed to several firms in China for manufacturing and distribution.

PATH’s current community water projects include the development of an electrochlorinator device that creates a chlorine solution from small amounts of salt and water, treating up to 200 liters of water.  In addition, PATH researchers are involved in sanitation and diarrheal disease prevention initiatives.

Glenn Austin, director of the Safe Water Project and PATH’s Water Air Sanitation Hygiene and Diarrheal disease (WASH) group, is optimistic about the organization’s progress.

“We are inspired by the ability of people to solve their own problems within their communities and households,” Austin said. "They just need the right tools, such as durable water filters or key components for hygienic toilets. In most low-income communities that we serve, we find a reserve of entrepreneurial energy that makes market-based approaches possible. PATH’s global innovations in WASH are succeeding, in large part, because local entrepreneurs and consumers are connecting around products that improve health."

The same market-based principles that the Safe Water Project applied to creating a consumer market for household and community water are being applied to providing access to better toilets, he added. “By broadening our work to sanitation, PATH is addressing a root cause of unsafe water.  The project work to improve product design methods, distribution, sales, service and operations is now benefiting improved sanitation and livelihoods.”

Local Puget Sound area government agencies have lent their expertise in global water sanitation efforts.  King County’s local hazardous waste management program regularly receives inquiries from countries such as The Philippines and New Zealand according to Dave Galvin, who manages the county’s program.  While its primary focus is reducing nonpoint source pollution and hazardous waste in the region, the implications for water sanitation globally are clear, he said.

“Chemical releases here can travel tens of thousands of miles to contaminate what should be pristine areas of the globe," Galvin said. " There are so many of us now on this planet that even small individual amounts of hazardous chemicals from each person or household add up to tons of toxic chemicals in the environment.  We need to do our part to reduce this insidious exposure.”

Other regional agencies such as the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks have provided technical consultation to Asian countries such as South Korea and Thailand, said Christie True, the department’s director. Both countries are working on more effective water sanitation systems. 

“We’ve used World Water Day as an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of cleaning water before discharge to protect public health,” True said.  “Our message is that we should all appreciate that we have good sanitation systems in this area and not take it for granted. A lot of people in the world don’t have that type of sanitation. Over 2.5 billion people in the world don’t even have access to latrines.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.