World Water Day 2013

03/21/2013 02:33 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2013

Tomorrow, March 22, is World Water Day, 2013. World Water Day is not nearly as well known as Earth Day. But it should be.

In this country, we take clean drinking water for granted. That's not the case for hundreds of millions of people elsewhere in the world -- the "Bottom Billion" as they're called.

The problem of contaminated water and poor sanitation around the world is extremely serious. In the time it has taken you to read this far, a child has died because of that problem -- one every 22 seconds -- an estimated 5,000 per year.

One third of the world does not have clean drinking water.

These are shocking statistics. Why isn't the problem better known? Why isn't more being doing about it?

Good questions... no good answers.

The cynical answer is that these children are dying in non-white, backward countries, and the rest of the world simply doesn't care.

A more benign response comes from Terri Greenly, who with her husband, Richard, founded Water4, a non-profit organization dedicated to coping with the problem. "It's is so overwhelming," she says, "that people don't know what to do about it, so they do nothing."

Adds Richard, "It's not sensational. The deaths are the equivalent of ten 747's crashing every day. If just one 747 actually crashes, it makes world headlines. But we're numb to the numbers involved in the water problem. And so it gets little attention."

Last March, the US State Department finally got around to drawing more attention to the problem. It established the US Water Partnership, which is described on its website as uniting and mobilizing "U.S. expertise, resources and ingenuity to address water challenges around the globe" and to facilitate public/private cooperation and coordination.

The Partnership is administered by the Global Environmental and Technology Foundation. Its founder and Chairman, Tom Harvey, describes the problem as an "epidemic." More hasn't been accomplished to make progress toward resolving the problem, he says, "because the effort has been fragmented." He claims that a billion dollars has been spent on water projects around the world in recent years, but "50% of them don't work."

He adds,"If there's one thing I've learned in this business, it is if you want something to work, make it simple."

Make it simple -- that could be Water4's guiding principle. With a paltry annual budget of $1.5 million, mostly from small donations, it drilled 412 wells last year and a total of 802 in small villages since it was founded in 2008. The cost is only around $1,000 per well.

Water4's methodology has revolutionized the business. The standard procedure for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is to bring in a $10,000 rig, drill a well and leave. It's not only expensive, it's also inefficient. If the well later breaks down, it's difficult and costly to get it fixed. It's the equivalent of "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day."

Water4 applies the latter part of that aphorism: "Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." It produces tools generated by human power for use in places where electricity or heavy equipment is not available. It starts by delivering a well-drilling kit to a village -- "business in a box" explains Terri Greenly. It then trains a team of locals how to use the tools to hand-drill the well and repair the equipment when necessary. That team is also trained how to instruct other teams, so the effect will eventually be exponential.

Water4 has now teamed up with the world's largest NGO, World Vision, which will provide $20 million to undertake the largest well-drilling project ever -- 60 teams drilling 7,000 wells all over the world.

There are other positive signs. The UN has designated 2013 The Year of International Water Cooperation and is announcing new initiatives to deal with the problem.

USAID and Coca-Cola have teamed up to underwrite a major well-drilling project.

Despite the enormity of the problem, GETF Chairman Tom Harvey is enthusiastic about the future. "We can solve this problem in our lifetime," he says, "and save an entire generation."

Water4's Richard Greenly is even more optimistic. "We can fix the world water problem in 10 years," he says, "if we can just get the infrastructure in place."

If so, the next generation will be saying, "Water, water, everywhere -- and all OK to drink."

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