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The world was marching toward delivering on the U.N.’s 17 Social Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030—until it wasn’t. As the pandemic spread, attention switched to stopping the spread and saving lives.

Inevitably, other ambitions included in the U.N.’s “Decade of Action” goals, launched in 2019, moved to the back burner, leaving philanthropies and nonprofits with missions in areas like clean energy and peace-building grappling with next steps and service models.

The same holds true for water. The urgency of meeting the twin goals of SDG 6—clean water and sanitation—remains critical. Water is complex: as essential to human existence as it is to public health. Yet, according to the U.N., 1 in 3 people in the world lack safe drinking water, and a reported 1 in 4 healthcare facilities lack basic water services. And as the virus rolled across the globe, 2.3 billion people lacked the means to wash their hands for protection.

Here’s how one organization, Water.org, responded to changing global conditions and developed solutions in an extraordinary time.

Backing a microfinance model

Water.org was founded 12 years ago when actor Matt Damon and water pioneer Gary White met at an international summit on poverty. Since then, the organization reports making water and sanitation safe and accessible for more than 38 million people around the globe.

Its approach to solving water inequity involves leveling financial barriers using a micro-financing model that has scored concrete successes. To date, loan repayment rates for the $3.1 billion Water.org has disbursed through its WaterCredit Initiative average 99%. The organization has also made great strides in reaching women and girls in low-income countries, a cohort that’s typically responsible for household water supplies—a time-consuming pursuit that often precludes working and going to school. A full 88% of Water.org’s borrowers are women.

On a macro level, the organization develops partnerships to influence public policy and practices toward better local budget deployment and fair funding. It also engages in global conversations on solutions and develops evidence-based data to support policy positions.

The organization’s work has garnered support from a broad range of donors including Jack Dorsey, who recently invested $4.7 million to support its work in Africa. The IKEA Foundation has been a supporter since 2013, funding two tactics to lift the circumstances of children: the WaterCredit micro-financing program and funding to accelerate research. Funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation helped Water.org launch WaterCredit in Ethiopia, as part of its safe water program. And Bank of America has been on board since 2011, funding the same program in northern and southern India. WaterCredit’s work in India also drew support from the PepsiCo Foundation and the Caterpillar Foundation, which also funded a market assessment for expansion in Indonesia.

Rippling effects

Water.org works in 11 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America—all areas of the world that have experienced lockdowns and significant spread of COVID-19.

Rich Thorsten, Water.org’s chief insights officer, said the pandemic had “pretty significant” economic and social impacts on the organization, particularly during earlier months.

It also exposed longstanding systemic inequities. Thorsten said that, as in many other areas, the pandemic revealed growing gulfs in “the types of underlying conditions on water and sanitation that have existed for a long time.”

As local conditions changed quickly, Water.org adopted a rolling response to the pandemic. Thorsten said developments occurred on a country-by-country basis, and tended to last for a month or two, with some stubborn hot spots. India, for example, has experienced three waves of case load increases.

Rippling government shutdowns and financial interventions challenged Water.org’s primary service delivery model. Some governments suspended loan-making, while others directed financial services institutions to postpone principal and interest payments. That meant talking to some donors about reprogramming, as banks were unable to disburse loans.

Quarantined borrowers were locked down at home, unable even to maintain their basic livelihoods. Still, according to Thorsten, there were surprisingly few problems with default and collections, leaving aside temporary suspensions and longer grace periods.

Thorsten said that for its part, Water.org didn’t want to see institutions providing and collecting on loans, like some avenues of relief in the U.S., and focused instead on cooperative efforts with groups like utilities providers.

He thinks the nature of overall programming “changes somewhat near-term,” to align with pandemic interventions. For example, Water.org has worked with donors to focus on solutions to hygiene and considering water as a form of PPE—both avenues that align with SDG 6 funding goals.

Building back

With an eye toward rebuilding, Water.org has leaned into its longtime work of generating evidence-based advance insights to influence action and thought leadership.

Thorsten believes that there will likely be service shifts over the longer term as well, and stressed that connecting remotely has changed interactions with partners. He sees a greater investment in financial technology as critical, and is working with fin-tech companies to “crack that” at a time when the humble cell phone may provide the most viable path to a loan for many borrowers.

For many nonprofits, building back organizational revenues will be an uphill climb. Water.org reported revenues of roughly $24 million for the tax year ending September 2019, and roughly $19 million for the same timeframe in 2020. Thorsten shared the good news that over the last few quarters, things have been close to returning to normal.

Keeping water on the agenda

Recovery remains far from equal, and that has ramifications for water equity. A new progress report issued by U.N. Water, the U.N.’s coordinating entity for water and sanitation, states it simply: The world is not on track to achieve SDG 6 goals by 2030.

Thorsten firmly believes that water and sanitation needs to remain on the U.N.’s agenda, especially with COVID’s significant impact on near-term government support and funding.

That includes the full spectrum of ways that SDG 6 links to other sustainable development goals, like the issues around environmental impact and climate action that are due for an airing at the COP21 conference in November.

Despite all the vagaries of responding to the pandemic, Water.org wants the aggregated data it has accumulated during this time of crisis to address longer-term problems of water scarcity, and influence public policy that reduces barriers while increasing equity.

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