world water day image

Measuring for safer water

By Dawn Plimmer 21 March 2014

Happy World Water Day! Tomorrow we celebrate one of the earth’s most precious resources. But providing access to safe water for the 780 million people still living without, requires a lot more than just digging wells. Water from wells and other water points is not always safe to drink, and even if water is safe at source, it’s often exposed to contamination during transport and storage.

We work with the Stone Family Foundation to support organisations in this area, including Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW)—a programme that installs chlorine dispensers next to community water points in Kenya and Uganda so that rural villagers can treat their water. Chlorine kills harmful pathogens, which has been shown to reduce the incidence of diarrhoea—the leading cause of childhood mortality—by 40%. It also helps protect against recontamination.

The health benefits of using chlorine are compelling on paper, but getting people to use the dispensers is a challenge. As with most preventative health interventions, health benefits alone are often not enough to change people’s entrenched habits. There’s a  much wider  range of factors that affect behaviour change, including peer pressure, convenience and service quality.

To approach the daunting task of changing behaviour, measurement has been crucial for DSW in testing and learning what works.

  • DSW’s model emerged from research that found treating water in the community, rather than in the home, increases use due to the effect of peer pressure and community enforcement.
  • Dispensers are provided free of charge to communities to maximise uptake—rural  villages simply can’t afford to pay and adoption rates have been shown to drop off heavily when charges are introduced.
  • Data also showed that providing a reliable, trusted service is crucial—if a villager goes to use a dispenser and it’s broken or empty, they might not use a dispenser again. So DSW is now looking to improve logistics through a more efficient ‘circuit rider’ model for dispenser maintenance and chlorine delivery, supported by detailed monitoring and supply chain management by field offices.

By measuring what matters and acting on what they’ve learnt, DSW have made impressive progress so far. On average, over 40% of households in villages with dispensers  have chlorine present in water in their homes, and DSW will continue to test, measure, improve and scale their approach to reach more and more people.

Providing sustainable access to safe drinking water is no easy feat and if the sector is to reach the millions of people who lack access to safe water, it will require continued attention to challenges way beyond constructing water points—sustainable financing mechanisms, maintenance models, logistics, behavioural psychology—to name just a few.

With initiatives like DSW emerging, supported by insightful measurement and learning, we’re confident that by the next World Water Day we’ll be that much closer to safe water for all.