In March I attended a few sessions of the Colorado WASH Symposium, a gathering of some of the world’s top thinkers on the tricky question of how to provide clean water and sanitation to the world’s poor. The symposium included a series of debates about what does and doesn’t work in “the field”—in this case, developing countries with some of the most squalid conditions imaginable.

I was most interested in a session on providing resources to the urban poor, because the trend in world population is strongly toward cities, and packing lots of people into a small area with no planning is usually a water and sanitation disaster. I was curious about the panel members’ thoughts on the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, in which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered prize money to universities that came up with the most innovative designs. For details see

Cheap, sustainable toilets have long been considered one of the magic bullets that might change the world, vastly improving the lives of the estimated 2.5 billion people who lack decent bathrooms. UNICEF estimates that every day 2,000 children die from diseases caused by polluted water and poor sanitation.

But here’s the unsurprising truth about even the most cleverly designed new tools: Their magical power is seriously overrated.

As I’ve visited service organizations in the U.S. and abroad, it’s become clear to me that few technological fixes have a lasting impact. Not on their own. This is especially true when it comes to water and sanitation. Digging a well for an African village is a very good thing, but only so long as the pump keeps working and the water remains unpolluted. At the Colorado symposium I was stunned to hear a respected clean water consultant, Mayling Simpson, estimate that 70 percent of the new water delivery systems installed in poor areas will fail within five years. Once they break, they are almost always abandoned. There simply isn’t the equipment, knowledge, or community capacity to fix them.

Equipment failures also plague sanitation projects, of which there are far fewer. Delivering clean water to poor areas has become a cause celeb, a fundraiser’s dream. But installing clean, functioning toilets—arguably a much more pressing need—is the helping industry’s overlooked stepchild.


At the session on providing resources to the urban poor, I expected to hear a debate over the best fix-it idea. I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t come.

Instead, panel members from the World Bank, the University of Leeds, and other respected organizations agreed that no tool is really going make a difference in the lives of the world’s poor unless it is accompanied by a lot of elbow grease and what for lack of a better word I’ll call plain old love. Now that I think of it, there is no better term to describe the deep desire many of us have to ease the pain of others. The perseverance that’s required. The willingness to ask local people for their ideas and work with them, shoulder to shoulder. Members of the panel certainly didn’t call it love. I heard terms like “long-term commitment” and “engaging the community.” Regardless of what it’s called, it requires you to open your heart.

 I left the symposium feeling better than I had in a long time. If the leaders of nonprofit groups and even institutions like the World Bank have learned that there are no quick fixes, there’s hope for us all.

This isn’t the end of it, of course. Another great new idea will soon emerge, and a number of very intelligent people will herald it as the solution to the world’s ills, or one ill in particular. (Sometime soon I’ll tell you the story of the bed nets that were supposed to rescue sub-Saharan Africa.) But word is out now, and at least some folks will remember to remind the rest of us: Beware the magic bullet.

AuthorJan DeBlieu