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Angela A. Buonocore Headshot

Private Sector's Unique Role in Addressing the Water and Sanitation Crisis

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Water is the lifeblood of the planet -- yet contaminated and polluted water kills more people than all forms of violence -- including wars, according to the UN Environment Programme. Even where there is clean water currently available, it is becoming increasingly clear that our global water supply is growing more burdened due to pollution, migration to cities and crumbling (or non-existent) infrastructure. Over the last century, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase and the FAO estimates that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population could be under water stress conditions. These numbers make it evident that the global water and sanitation crisis cannot be tackled by local governments alone. All sectors have an invaluable role to play.

This week, I am attending World Water Week, an annual meeting held in Stockholm convening more than 2,000 cross-sector experts, practitioners, decision makers and leaders from around the globe to discuss urgent water-related issues. Over the past few days, the need for collaboration among all sectors to address water issues has been a recurring theme, yet one that I believe cannot be overstated.

As I mentioned in my previous post, cross-sector collaboration has increasingly been embraced and yet some critics still continue to question the private sector's involvement in addressing critical social and environmental issues. Given my experience at several Fortune 500 companies, I can confidently say that the private sector has unique tools and resources that can significantly complement government and non-profit efforts. Most frequently cited are companies' proprietary products and technologies, employees' time and expertise, and monetary resources. However, one unique contribution is commonly overlooked -- business savvy.

As the new wave in entrepreneurial philanthropy or social entrepreneurship, which strives to add profitability and accountability to traditional philanthropic projects, continues to gain momentum, the private sector is uniquely positioned to help.

With more than 50 percent of all water projects failing and less than five percent of projects being visited after installation (according to Water.org), we must empower local communities to operate and manage their water systems effectively in order to make solutions sustainable. When you add entrepreneurship and profitability to this equation -- you are not only promoting sustainable development but economic development.

ITT Watermark's non-profit partner Water For People is doing just that through its Sanitation as a Business initiative, which demonstrates that a combination of profit incentives for small local companies and income generation programs for poor households and schools can result in sustainable, safe sanitation services. The private sector can help further expand programs such as this by leveraging their entrepreneurial experience to help non-profits think differently.

But in order for the private sector to make a sustained impact over time, companies must develop authentic commitments to issues that are closely tied to their everyday operations and that have an impact on key markets and stakeholders.

For this reason, ITT's corporate citizenship program, ITT Watermark, leverages our core business expertise to bring safe water, sanitation and hygiene education to children, families and communities in the developing world and to provide access to safe water in times of emergency. Furthermore, we focus our philanthropic presence in markets that are important for our business and promise to be in years to come. In fact, at World Water Week, we announced that we are pledging $10.5 million over three years (2011-2013) to provide one million people around the world with access to safe water and sanitation, building upon the 500,000 children and families that the program will reach by the end of 2010.

Our program's success since its launch has proven that when the private sector applies its unique resources to collaborate with non-profits and government, a sustained impact can be made. For example, within hours of being notified of the devastating floods in Pakistan, ITT authorized partner Mercy Corps to tap monetary resources from ITT's emergency response fund to support efforts to provide clean water to victims. Furthermore, ITT was able to apply its expertise by donating five portable water treatment systems to provide clean water to as many as 200,000 people.

Moving forward, it will be important for ITT and other companies to continue to collaborate with governments and non-profits and leverage our unique resources to make an impact. Opportunities for the private sector to apply business expertise and understanding of entrepreneurial initiatives may be a unique distinguishing factor to help sustain water and sanitation projects over time.

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