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Answering the world's growing water problem

The number of people around the world without access to clean water is growing. The answer may not be huge dams but rainwater collection and other micro-projects involving families and communities.

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But other experts say new reasons have surfaced to put water back at the top of the global development agenda.

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“The environmental movement is one reason for the upswing in interest in water, but a second reason is global warming,” says Arthur Keys, president and CEO of International Relief and Development (IRD), based in Arlington, Va. “That’s caused people to realize that some of our water resources we’ve depended on aren’t going to be here.”

He cites an example from the State Department’s Under Secretary Otero, who recalls how in her native Bolivia, one region depended for centuries on the water from one glacier. “Now that glacier is gone,” he says.

The era of big-ticket infrastructure projects to meet water needs is largely of the past, Mr. Keys says, because rich countries no longer have the budgets to bankroll such projects – and also because such projects too often require expensive maintenance.

“Sustainability is the new key to the water challenge,’ he says.

Reforming wasteful water uses will be one answer to the challenge. Otero notes that Pakistan uses over 90 percent of its water resources for irrigation – “they flood irrigate,” she says – but that about two-thirds of the water pumped into irrigation systems is lost to ground seepage.

IRD’s Keys highlights his organization’s roof water collection project in Zimbabwe. The project has flourished, he says, in large part because the materials for the systems – the gutters and pipes and collection tanks – were integrated from the outset by having local small entrepreneurs develop and supply the parts.

Now the program is being replicated in neighboring Mozambique.

“One of the reasons that program has succeeded is that it presents a viable business model at the local level,” Keys says.

Another attractive aspect of rooftop water collection is the impact it has on women – the half of the population that experts say will be key in addressing the developing world’s water challenge.

In Zimbabwe, as in many other places, poor women have often had to spend large parts of the day simply going to draw water at some distant spot to bring back to their homes. But with water collected in a tank right outside the house, that can change.

“Such distribution system freed up women for other activities with children and education,” Keys says.

Two development challenges addressed – with one water tank.

IN PICTURES: World Water Day 2011

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