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Last month I started a journey, in monthly installments, to two fictional cities—Assetsville and Needsville—both cities representative of poor communities in Africa. While the issues in these cities are identical, the responses to these issues could not be more different—both in philosophy and methodology.
Clean water and sanitation are luxuries. The statistics are devastating: One billion of our planet’s citizens lack access to clean water. Unsafe water and poor sanitation cause 80% of all diseases and kill more than two million people annually, 90% of whom are children under the age of five.
When these realities became publicized in Needsville, the response from the international community was swift and profound. Wells were drilled. Rainwater was collected and purified. Water filtration plants were installed. The challenge was big and the response was inspiring.
Sadly, the outcomes fell far short of the aspirations. Shockingly, 80% of the new wells fell into disrepair. The entire region became a “wasteland for broken water and sanitation infrastructure.” The working wells became overworked, plagued by shortages and unmotivated staff. Long lines developed at these wells as the meek recipients waited anxiously to fill up their jugs with the “free” water. Even some church well projects, while well-meaning, were not sustained. The wells were drilled for the residents of Needsville by missions trippers, not by or with them.

In sharp contrast, the streets of Assetsville are now flowing with clean water. Local ingenuity, entrepreneurial grit and sustainable models abound. A local church recently built a water purification center with the help of a Christian ministry and is now providing affordable clean water to their community. The water business employs a handful of church members and creates a revenue stream for the church to pay its underpaid pastoral staff. Refreshing: The local church is providing affordable pure water and sharing about the Living Water.
microfinance program in Assetsville built a purification system in its branch office. Dozens of clients subsequently took out loans to purchase the clean water in bulk. These water vendors load up their bicycles with jugs of water and sell it in some of the most-underserved communities in the city. Through this model, they collectively sell over 300,000 gallons annually and experience the dignity of work. Innovative: Water solutions—microfinance-style.
Down the road, a pioneering new business is a booming success, bringing dignity to sanitation, through its high-quality, public, pay-per-use toilet and shower facility. Counterintuitive: “The poor” paying for the privilege of using clean bathroom facilities.
Even the children are involved in the movement. They pump clean water into their schools while they play on merry-go-rounds. The excess water is sold to the community and advertising space on the water tanks is sold to ensure the pumps are maintained. Clever: Sustainable clean water fueled by the play of children.
All throughout Assetsville, fresh ideas and entrepreneurial tenacity are charting a new course—a course fueled by smart solutions, and framed by healthy partnerships between the residents of Assetsville and those who are descending on the city to provide help. Next month’s installment: Education.