MIAMI -- Steven Solomon was just starting the research on a huge book on the global water problem when his wife Claudine got the idea - independently - to take some of her middle school students to Africa to work on a water project.
In three weeks in southeastern Kenya, near the border with Tanzania, Mr. Solomon, his wife, their three teenage daughters and three other young people managed to help install a couple of miles of pipe and a water tank that brought clean drinking into the heart of a cluster of homes in the area of Chyulu Hills.
To provide water for all of the roughly 8,000 people living in Chyulu Hills, three more water lines and tanks were needed. The Solomons figured the job could be done for about $80,000. They went home to Washington eager to round up the money and return to East Africa to do the work.
But, it turned out, they could not find anyone to pay for the project. Maybe they didn't know enough about development. And maybe, Steven Solomon concedes, they didn't try hard enough. Mr. Solomon managed to publish a nearly 600-page book, Water, the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, in January. So I doubt that the Africa water project failed for lack of trying.
The Solomon's expanded project failed to get off the ground several years ago. But nothing much has changed. Water projects around the world often fail or don't get started at all for a common, fundamental reason: No one is in charge on this issue. There is no dominant, agreed upon policy that could knit together the many well-intentioned small projects and, at the same time, encourage the multitude of political leaders to step in and do something meaningful. The work that is being done is fragmented, sometimes contradictory. Maintenance is often overlooked. The issue is near the bottom of everyone's agenda.
For decades, at least one billion of the world's now 6.8 billion people have not had regular access to clean drinking water. It could be 2 billion, even 3 billion. The statistics are not reliable. But the numbers are huge and the needle is not moving much in the right direction.
The water that people haul into their homes from rivers and lakes is often contaminated with bacteria and parasites. As many as 2.5 billion people do not have toilets. So there is a problem of human waste, too. When people have barely enough drinking water to survive, they don't wash their hands as often as they should. Sometimes the water starts out clean. But dirty hands transform drinking water into something you shouldn't drink.
The result is a lot of sickness. A high percentage of all the hospital beds in the developing world are taken up by people with what are often referred to as water-borne diseases. Each year the diseases kill about 2 million people, mostly children under five. That is about 5,000 deaths a day, mostly children, children who should not be dying.
The technology to get clean water to everyone exists. The work is not overwhelmingly expensive. In the course of writing his book, Mr. Solomon has become an expert on water. "This is a solvable problem," he said. "It is a logistical, political, organizational problem."
Often, it is a matter of scale. When Mr. Solomon's wife Claudine was trying to raise money, one expert told her: "This project is too small for us. We need to have a big project to make it worthwhile." But, experts have told me, big water projects often get shunted aside for other big projects. Hospitals, for example, seem to be more attractive. Yet if the water problem were solved, fewer hospitals would be needed.
"We need somebody of stature to step forward," Mr. Solomon said. "We need an Al Gore of water."