Confronting inequities, sharing solutions

At this year’s meeting of the Global Water Alliance, experts shared their challenges and success stories in addressing disparities in access to water.

A speaker addresses a room full of people sitting at tables. A historic photo is displayed on a screen.
A rapt audience took in the keynote address by Water for People CEO Eleanor Allen. Displaying a historic photo of donkeys carrying water, she underscored that the U.S.’s water infrastructure is, in some ways, not so far-removed from that of developing nations. (Photo: Pheng Tang/Global Water Alliance)

There’s a straight line from water access to social progress, according to Eleanor Allen, CEO of the international nonprofit Water for People. “If we don’t have basic services, if we don’t know where we’re going to go to the bathroom,” she explained, “how can we concentrate on creating a better future for ourselves?”

As part of the keynote talk at this year’s Global Water Alliance (GWA) meeting, held at Penn, Allen laid out the rationale that drives her organization’s mission of ensuring that people around the world have access to clean, reliable water that can help break the cycle of poverty and set the stage for economic growth, a trajectory that paves the way for social progress.

Inequities abound in water access in both the United States and globally. This year’s gathering of the GWA focused on implementing solutions that address inequities in the world of water, sanitation, and hygiene, taking an inclusive approach. 

To do so, an implicit goal of the meeting was to begin “to address these complex problems” by working across disciplines, according to Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at Penn, which was one of the sponsors of this year’s conference. The conference itself was a step in the right direction, as Neukrug noted the diverse representation and enthusiasm present in the room, with people trained in engineering, ecology, social justice, economics, entrepreneurship, and international development.

A projected image of a girl drinking water from a pink cup, alongside the words "nearly 1 in 3 people around the world don't have access to safe water"
Difficult though it may be to imagine, billions of people around the world do not have reliable access to clean, safe water. Conference attendees shared their experiences at trying to close that gap in access. (Photo: Pheng Tang/Global Water Alliance)

And while many gatherings related to the water sector focus on issues either in the U.S. or globally—not both—this year’s GWA conference brought together experts with experience at home and abroad to share and learn from one another. Leveraging their diverse experiences, the presenters painted a vivid picture of the gaping inequities in water access and also the power of stakeholders coming together to make a difference.

The Global Water Alliance was founded in 2006 by a group led by Stanley Laskowski, a lecturer at Penn who wanted to take a multi-disciplinary approach to helping people in developing nations gain access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. GWA has grown significantly, now involving representatives from academia, non-governmental organizations, the business world, and more. 

With opening remarks, Eric Orts of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, another one of the conference sponsors, described a potentially scalable program to carry clean water to the slums of Nairobi. Attracting plaudits including the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, Orts noted the community-led project being a hopeful sign of progress for one group of people, but there is a great distance left to go to address the pressing demand for accessible water around the world. 

“We in the room are in a privileged situation to do something about the larger world and the problems it’s facing,” Orts said.

Allen followed up on his point, highlighting the sometimes-staggering breadth and depth of water access challenges. She cited unnerving statistics: Around the world, one in three people lack access to clean water and one in two don’t have access to adequate sanitation services. 

The impacts of climate change aggravate these needs. Dan Garofalo of Penn’s Sustainability Office pointed out that the effects are as close as the week’s headlines, citing the devastating flooding affecting both Mozambique and the U.S. Midwest. 

And indeed, while most may assume that such conditions are confined to developing nations, the first panel, moderated by Neukrug, made it clear that many U.S. cities aren’t free from vulnerabilities when it comes to water infrastructure. Neukrug recalled a conversation with the innovative former director of the Washington, D.C., water utility—considered one of the most forward-thinking in the world--where he shared the ways that water access in our nation’s capital could be placed at risk. 

“You start to realize that some of the best utilities in the U.S. are at the C-plus, B-minus level,” Neukrug said.

A group of three rows of people wearing nametags poses for a photo.
This year’s Global Water Alliance Conference convened a diverse cross-section of individuals from backgrounds ranging from engineering to social justice. Their common thread? A shared interest in erasing disparities in access to clean water. (Photo: Pheng Tang/Global Water Alliance)

Speakers from the National Wildlife Federation, We the People of Detroit, and the U.S. Water Alliance put this truth in stark relief. Shedding light on their strategies to close the water access gap for communities of color, tribal communities, and low-income communities around the U.S., the panelists described problems obtaining water access that can exacerbate other inequities.

The water supply of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest’s Four Corners region, for example, is contaminated by radioactive uranium from nuclear testing facilities, and as many as 40 percent of households lack complete plumbing, noted Zoë Roller of the U.S. Water Alliance. “They may have to drive hours to get to another town to obtain water,” she said.

Working with a partner group Dig Deep, Roller’s organization is helping communities like the Navajo develop low-cost infrastructure to ensure they can obtain clean water more easily. 

Additional panel discussions focused on case studies and solutions to equities in water, sanitation, and hygiene in both the U.S. and the developing world. In one, Seung Lee of Save the Children USA drew the audience’s attention to the impact that lack of adequate sanitation facilities can have on girls in schools as they begin to menstruate. Showing pictures of the less-than-desirable outbuildings she’s seen in her travels, Lee noted that even the best facilities are not sufficient on their own.  

“There’s a belief among engineers that if you build it, they will come,” she said. “But just as important, you need to do health education and you need to have maintenance once its built.” Should a facility fall into disrepair or if the women and girls end up being the ones responsible for keeping it clean, it perpetuates the inequities the facility was built to break down, Lee said.

GWA President Christiaan Morssink introduced a session about best practice solutions to addressing inequities by encouraging the room to reflect on what their goals were. 

“Inequities can play out in a variety of areas: Gender, religion, race, income, you name it,” he said. “We need to begin to understand the moral implications of thinking in terms of inequity.” Rather than bringing down the elite, Morssink noted, it's bringing up those who have the least. “When I think through the lens of equity, I am looking at finding a middle ground.”

A speaker gestures at a podium, as panelists and audience members listen. His slide reads "Groundwater Related WASH Inequities from Aquifer Overexploitation"
Panel discussions, such as one led by hydrogeologist Vincent Uhl, allowed speakers to share their experiences working on the ground, around the world, with others with complementary expertise to drive at common themes and possible solutions to issues of inequity. (Photo: Pheng Tang/Global Water Alliance)

Keeping a focus on the finances of both implementing water projects and making water affordable, the World Bank’s Nishta Mehta discussed microfinance models to support latrine purchases in Bangladesh, while David Fuente, an economist with the University of South Carolina examined the popular and effective means of lowering the financial burden of obtaining water in the U.S., from utility-bill discounts to block tariffs.

True to its emphasis on collaboration and engagement across disciplines, the conference closed with the audience brainstorming. Groups generated ideas in response to the prompt of how to provide women with leadership opportunity in the water sector. 

As each table called out ideas—including providing equal opportunity for STEM education for girls and ensuring equity in gender representation in NGO leadership, and many other multi-faceted solutions—a hopeful view of an innovative, equitable future emerged.