Greg Allgood on global water crisis: ‘We can't wait and slow down’

Chelsea Clinton, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Greg Allgood, founder of Procter & Gamble’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program and vice president of World Vision Water, during a recent trip to Rwanda. Photo by: World Vision

Greg Allgood, vice president of water at World Vision U.S., is brimming with excitement. Earlier this week, the organization forged a new partnership with pump manufacturing giant Grundfos to expand access to clean water to 2 million more people in sub-Saharan Africa within five years.

As part of the initiative, World Vision will dig wells and then Grundfos will install solar-powered pumps to carry the water in an overhead tank. In terms of persons reached, the mechanized pumps are expected to cost less to install compared to traditional boreholes.

In addition, a recently published independent study suggests that World Vision had the right idea in its approach to bringing clean water to developing countries: Nearly 80 percent of World Vision water wells remain operational two decades on — a staggering success considering the oft-cited statistic that half of the water points created in the developing world become unusable within a year.

The secret to World Vision’s successful water wells, according to the study, which was presented at last month’s World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden: Communities have local water committees that collect fees and train community members to do repairs.

“It's not that the World Vision water points didn't break down; in fact, they broke down just as often as the non-World Vision water points,” Greg Allgood, vice president for water at World Vision U.S., told Devex, citing a breakdown rate of 45 percent. “So they break down frequently, but if people know how to fix them and there's money in the bank to fix them, they just fix them and they can keep them.”

Allgood also discussed his vision for a water crisis-free world by 2030 and the challenges developing countries face in expanding access to water. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Why’s there such a long history of unsustainable water projects?

You take a group like Engineers Without Borders. They used to send teams of students, go down for a summer project, dig a well and leave, right? So that's just the way it was done. But even Engineers Without Borders now has changed their approach and they don't go into communities unless they're making a five-year commitment. So they've learned that you can't just go in and dig a well and leave.

If we take the time to work with communities and invest as much in the software and invest in the time with the communities so that they not only know that they have to take ownership but they do take ownership, then Africa doesn't have to be littered with wells that don't work. It can be full of water points that function for decades and the water continues to flow for communities.

In 2012, the United Nations declared that the MDG target on water has been met. What do you say to those who may think there’s now less need to invest in increased water access as compared to other development targets?

We have 730 million people that don't have access to clean water. And it's 1,600 kids that are dying every day. Diarrhea is still the No. 2 cause of childhood deaths. Yes, fantastic, the Millennium Development Goals were met. It was driven by China doing a lot, but there are many countries in Africa that are not going to meet MDGs. That's sort of the bad news.

The good news is we're making tremendous progress in addressing it. I mean, the fact that World Vision is the leader is reaching a new person [with clean water] every 30 seconds. I believe that with all my heart that we will solve the global water crisis but we can't wait and slow down. We need to do it because it's more imperative to address something that's killing so many kids every day.

I see that people might say that [investment needs are not that much]. But I talk to people now like Dave and Dana Dornsife: They've never been more excited because, I believe, we're at a point where we can have a generational impact. One of the things that my generation can do is provide clean water access to every man, woman and child on the planet. That's doable within our lifetimes and I believe we will do it and to be part of something like last generation was the eradication of smallpox; we're almost there with polio. Who would have thought we could do it for the global water crisis? That's a much bigger task but I believe we will [do it].

What do you hope to see in the post-2015 development agenda?

Universal coverage for water and sanitation. We can't really settle for anything less now that we're getting a lot closer than we were. I don't see a possible, logical goal other than everybody gets clean drinking water by 2030; we can try to do it sooner. But that's the one that I think makes the most sense. And that's the way we're starting to look at it at World Vision. Let's get the job done by 2030.

How can we reach the goal of universal access to clean drinking water by 2030? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.