Blog Action Day: Water, Sanitation and Community

Vast amounts of money have been spent on aid in Bangladesh, among other things on water and sanitation, often with disappointing results. What if the power of money isn’t what brings change, but rather the power of community?

The Community-Led Total Sanitation approach taps that power. It rules out subsidies, and uses facilitators from the broader community (i.e. Bangladeshi, not foreigners). It uses grassroots techniques to raise consciousness of the effect of poor sanitation, and motivates the community to fix its own problems – and it works. Open defecation is now seen as unacceptable, and the environment and local water supplies are cleaner and safer as a result. It’s designed by a Bengali water expert, and supported by a Western agency, WaterAid, but does not look like a conventional foreign aid project.

Community participation is not a panacea, but it’s essential to effective aid.

Community is also how Appropedia works to create a knowledge trust for a just and sustainable world. But I’m being dragged away from the computer, so more on that another day.

Related wiki articles:

Part of Blog Action Day.

A future for conferences

Mark Charmer of Akvo, the innovative water knowledge organization, gives a scathing assessment of big conferences attended by important people.

Mark recalls watching a member of royalty

tell an audience of several thousand water experts, under the watchful eye of the media, that access to clean water was vital to everyone, rich and poor. The air of resonance chamber was overwhelming – two hours x 2,000 people is 4,000 hours of expert time wasted on a series of statements that everyone in the room already knew.

Mark then gives a generous interpretation of this, and a cynical one.

He goes on to talk about the near-complete lack of innovation at these events:

In a session on innovation, I was asked for my impressions. I was scathing. As intimidating as it was impersonal, apart from the presence of mobile phones, I didn’t see anything happening around me that couldn’t have happened here in 1969. Where was the innovation? … Worse was what I didn’t see – there were not many people demonstrating new, low cost technologies, one of the things we care most about at Akvo.

Of course, there are better, more open ways of doing things, including the BarCamp approach to conferences, and Mark gives some specific ideas in his post. Read the whole post on the Akvo blog.

Clean water – open knowledge resources

swiss mountains through a glass of water by Gaetan LeeA fellow Appropedian asked if I’d written any articles on water treatment, as he wants to learn about it. Yes and no – most articles I’ve worked on have been collaborative efforts that remain open to improvement. That can work well,  as described in a recent post.

Putting that aside, where are the open resources that a learner should know about in water treatment?

  • Appropedia’s Water portal is a good place to start – it gives a map of Appropedia’s water content and some highlights, as well as links to other key open resources.
  • Akvo’s Akvopedia (similar name, different site – but they’re good friends of Appropedia). This has great, structured information about specific tech, with a development and appropriate technology focus.
  • Wikipedia’s Water Portal and Water_treatment pages, and the many others in the Water treatment category. There’s also the water section of the appropriate technology article. It’s topical info only, without the how-tos and designs you can find on Appropedia and Akvopedia, but the breadth and organization make this a great resource.
  • Waterwiki.net is a United Nations project, which is less open in a number of ways. Much of the content is posted as PDFs attached to pages (are they covered by the open license too?); you need to jump through some hurdles to join and contribute; and although it’s a polished looking site, it’s not clear at first glance that it also welcomes non-UN contributors. It’s good that the UN is taking steps towards openness – the best thing they could do, though, is make a policy of open licensing all their publications, past present and future.

OpenCourseWare resources are course materials such as podcasts and written materials, often from top universities, that are freely accessible online. The OpenCourseWare Finder yields results such as these:

Then there are great resources which are copyrighted, which we hope will soon be open:

  • CAWST – Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology – Akvo used some of their content in Akvopedia, which is how I found this great knowledge resource, but as there is no copyright or license statement on the site, it’s technically copyright. (I assume Akvo got permission for the pages they used.)
  • BioSandFilter.org – another great resource on a more specific area of technology and design for water treatment. From our conversations, we know they support knowledge sharing – we just hope they go the extra step and choose an open license.


Photo credit: Gaetan Lee, CC-BY. Chosen because: The glass is half full.

Clean water – open knowledge resources

swiss mountains through a glass of water by Gaetan LeeA fellow Appropedian asked if I’d written any articles on water treatment, as he wants to learn about it. Yes and no – most articles I’ve worked on have been collaborative efforts that remain open to improvement. That can work well,  as described in a recent post.

Putting that aside, where are the open resources that a learner should know about in water treatment?

  • Appropedia’s Water portal is a good place to start – it gives a map of Appropedia’s water content and some highlights, as well as links to other key open resources.
  • Akvo’s Akvopedia (similar name, different site – but they’re good friends of Appropedia). This has great, structured information about specific tech, with a development and appropriate technology focus.
  • Wikipedia’s Water Portal and Water_treatment pages, and the many others in the Water treatment category. There’s also the water section of the appropriate technology article. It’s topical info only, without the how-tos and designs you can find on Appropedia and Akvopedia, but the breadth and organization make this a great resource.
  • Waterwiki.net is a United Nations project, which is less open in a number of ways. Much of the content is posted as PDFs attached to pages (are they covered by the open license too?); you need to jump through some hurdles to join and contribute; and although it’s a polished looking site, it’s not clear at first glance that it also welcomes non-UN contributors. It’s good that the UN is taking steps towards openness – the best thing they could do, though, is make a policy of open licensing all their publications, past present and future.

OpenCourseWare resources are course materials such as podcasts and written materials, often from top universities, that are freely accessible online. The OpenCourseWare Finder yields results such as these:

Then there are great resources which are copyrighted, which we hope will soon be open:

  • CAWST – Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology – Akvo used some of their content in Akvopedia, which is how I found this great knowledge resource, but as there is no copyright or license statement on the site, it’s technically copyright. (I assume Akvo got permission for the pages they used.)
  • BioSandFilter.org – another great resource on a more specific area of technology and design for water treatment. From our conversations, we know they support knowledge sharing – we just hope they go the extra step and choose an open license.


Photo credit: Gaetan Lee, CC-BY. Chosen because: The glass is half full.

The woman who built herself a toilet

I met Akvo in the Netherlands – a group that not only is working for water and sanitation, but really gets the importance of doing all this in an “open source” way.

Much could be written… but more than anything I want to share these wonderful posters. (Note, these are under a CC-BY-NC license, i.e. may not be reproduced for commercial purposes):

indiahighres.jpg by Charmermrk.

africahighres.jpg by Charmermrk.

POSTER WIND AND WATER DEF.jpg by Charmermrk.

POSTER WATER THE MUSICAL.jpg by Charmermrk.

See Akvo’s blog to learn about the man behind those amazing Akvo posters.

Too much skepticism of the skeptic

Note: Blog posts are the opinions of the individual blogger, and not necessarily of the Appropedia Foundation or the Appropedia community. (We may decide to put a note like this on all blog posts, but it seemed particularly important for a topic like Bjørn Lomborg.)

Reading Bjørn Lomborg’s ideas, I’m learning* that he’s not a climate skeptic, and many of his ideas are sound. Things are getting better for most people in the world (even if it still sucks for many), water wars aren’t as likely as some make out (it’s usually cheaper to build desalination plants – not great, but better than war), most pollutants decrease as societies become prosperous, pesticides in our diet are not a major cause of cancer (compared to coffee and alcohol), and of course, that we should do cost-benefit analyses for solutions to our problems. And as for his image as a climate skeptic, even in The Skeptical Environmentalist he acknowledged the reality of climate change – though he questions the best response.

In this light it looks like an important contribution to the debate – if only the debate hadn’t been conducted at an emotive rather than factual level.

That said, I still have major problems with some of his arguments, and a central plank of his arguments, prioritization, is summed up in these quotes by his critics (from the Wikipedia article):

Lomborg specialises in presenting the reader with false choices – such as the assertion that money not spent on preventing climate change could be spent on bringing clean water to the developing world, thereby saving more lives per dollar of expenditure. Of course, in the real world, these are not the kind of choices we are faced with. Why not take the $60 billion from George Bush’s stupid Son of Star Wars program and use that cash to save lives in Ethiopia? — from a pie thrower.

and:

As Lomborg notes, “We will never have enough money,” and therefore, “Prioritization is absolutely essential.” Why, then, does he weigh the environment only against hospitals and childcare, rather than against, say, industry subsidies and defense spending? — Grist Magazine

I also have never seen much attention to the technological impact of carbon pricing, and it seems like Lomborg is no different. By sending a price signal now, we encourage money and effort to be spent on solutions that could turn the climate change challenge around. E.g. What happens when solar becomes cheaper than coal, and energy storage becomes affordable? A massive transition to a post-carbon economy will begin, that will make most of the models irrelevant. (To be fair he does conclude that there should be investment in renewable energy technologies, but I don’t think he discusses the market-based approach.)

There’s also the fact that many measures to stop global warming, especially efficiency measures, are an economic benefit, not a cost at all.

Of course, I’ve been wrong on Lomborg before, and I may still be.

But how do we reach a more intelligent level of debate? We can’t wait for the mass media – that’s not their field. I’d like to see Lomborg release his work under a free license, so we could remix it, expand and assess arguments, and plug holes, making the comparisons that he himself missed.

*Okay, a friend has been defending Lomorg to me for ages, but I never quite believed him.

Originally posted, by the same author, at Pablo Garuda.