Water: How Should we value it?

A clue: It’s more than just counting the money

This post is based on an article I wrote for the Q3 edition of the Institute of Water magazine

The ideal

There is increasing awareness that clean drinking water and good sanitation has a far greater value than the simple economic returns it offers to water supply organisation and countries.

To give a simple example: Women’s education is increasingly seen as important in helping some individuals and communities improve the quality of their lives.

The thinking is that as women become more educated, they will be better placed to run their own businesses, generating income which will enable their children to access education and healthcare, not to mention simply putting enough food on the family table.

The reality

Contrast this with the reality for many women in poorer communities who may have to spend many hours a day walking to get relatively small amounts of water, water that at best will be unsightly and unpalatable and will quite likely contain pathogens like cholera and typhoid that can kill.

Helping or saving

Traditional approaches to aid have often focused on the economic benefits of the programmes decided by the aid givers. More recently both the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have taken a different approach, focusing on what communities want and helping them deliver their own solutions. Water Aid also champion this approach.

More personally, when asked why I work past what for many is a longed-for retirement date, my answer is that I love “helping people to help themselves”. At its simplest, it’s about coaching rather than telling, and giving people the knowledge and understanding to develop and manage their own solutions.

As part of this, I found that involving the people affected by a problem people in the solution development and implementation gives much better results than wading in with all the answers.

Social Value

Imagine asking such a woman what it would mean to her to have a safe, affordable, local source of clean water, and somewhere safe to go to the toilet. I imagine the conversation would cover the whole range of Maslow levels from simply staying alive, having food, shelter and sex, through having satisfying work up to the aspiration of building a better future for themselves and their children.

Techniques such as the Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis can help us assign cash values to such benefits, cash values often being seen as an important metric when selecting projects for funding.

SROI has a place. Arguably the most important part of an SROI analysis is to find out what it is that people would value about a particular improvement before undertaking the value assigning exercise.

I strongly believe that only by understanding what people want and value can sustainable solutions be built.


There is a huge amount of research work going on into technologies that can help address water resource and sanitation issues. This is great. However, as I have learned over the years, any technology solution is only as good as the benefits it brings.

If we focus on benefits, not technology features, and above all Keep It Simple S*****d (KISS) those seeking to help can quickly help communities develop water and sanitation solutions that provide them with real value.

Equally by working to the 80/20 rule (Pareto), quick wins can be identified that will deliver benefits today rather that perfection tomorrow, remembering that tomorrow never comes…..

Might this work?

Imagine a situation where the women and children in a village must daily walk for hours to get a few litres of dubious quality drinking water that they then have to carry home. This is both physically hard work and prevents them earning money and going to school respectively.

Potential solutions might include solar driven water treatment and pumping but these would beyond the ability of the community to really be part of. Yes, there would be a clean water supply, but little by way of employment or other social benefits.

In my example the two problems here are “Distance to Water” (DTW) and “Water Quality” (WQ). Rather than trying to reduce DTW, an initial idea might be to reduce the “Time To water” (TTW). This could be by providing the community with a bicycle equipped with a water carrying pannier system.

Clearly one bicycle can only be used by one person at a time, but it opens possibility of the community creating a job of “Water Collector” who will collect water for the community is return for a payment.

If it works, the money earned could be invest in a trailer to enable more water to be carried each trip, earning more money for the collector, and providing more water for the community. It’s starting to sound like a virtuous circle.

WQ issue can be addressed by a system of barrel-based sand filters, either at a household or community level. Such filter can cheaply achieve multi-log reduction in pathogens with no chemical requirements and minimal maintenance.

Even better, not only does the community have a better water supply, they also have employment and greater freedom for profitable work and education.

Ask, don’t tell

Above, I asked the question “Would this work”. It certainly has a chance. However, before it tried to do anything like that, I would want to spend time with the community understanding their needs and wants and asking them how they think it would work.

If experience is anything to go by, they are likely to come up with a better solution than me, one that that gives them more of what they value.

What can I do?

None of us can change the world. But we all can do something. One very practical option for all of us is to support organisation like Water Aid. This can be by making regular donations of what ever you can afford, or by contributing time as a volunteer.

If you need a motivation, just think what your life would be like without our 24/7/365 water and wastewater services and remember that this is a daily reality for nearly a billion people in the world today.

Please, just do something, no matter how small.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post. If you have thoughts on what I have written so far please leave a comment.

Also if you have an idea for another business topic let me know and I’ll be delighted to find a space for it.

Thanks again

Bob windmill

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