Improving Water Sanitation and Hygiene in Asia and Africa, One Washed Hand at a Time

by Markkus Rovito
- Mar 22 2018 - 6 min read
water sanitation and hygiene Splash.org
Splash began its mission furnishing Chinese orphanages with safe water for drinking and hand washing and now serves nearly 100,000 children in China per day. Courtesy Splash.org.

March 22 is World Water Day, an event intended to shine a light on the present and future crises of water safety and scarcity. One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals targets access to safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. That achievement will require massive cooperation among governments, private companies, nonprofits, and individuals.

Splash is one organization working toward that goal through the development of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) solutions for children in Asia and Africa. Founder and Executive Director Eric Stowe believes that getting governments to scale WASH solutions is the biggest roadblock to achieving safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. However, the increasing willingness among water organizations and governments to collaborate and share information—along with the technology for doing so—gives him hope.

“By 2030, the sector should have a standard for developing clean-water solutions at scale: what it will cost and how to service and maintain it for the long haul,” Stowe says. “The recent ability for organizations to collaborate and share information, in a way we were never able to before, is phenomenal.”

water sanitation and hygiene Eric Stowe Splash
Splash Founder and Executive Director Eric Stowe speaks in front of an Ethiopian school. Courtesy Splash.

When Stowe started Splash 10 years ago, his original goal was to provide every orphanage in China with clean water. That goal seemed audacious at the time, but at the end of 2017, Splash had reached it—providing nearly 100,000 children in 1,100 orphanages across 32 provinces with safe, clean water.

Now, Splash has increased its reach, employing scaling strategies learned in China and expanding WASH projects in urban schools across Kathmandu, Nepal; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Kolkata, India; and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Splash currently serves more than 400,000 children in eight countries and is on track to reach more than 1 million kids per day by 2023.

Stowe believes that if tourist hotels and restaurants in developing countries can have clean water, so can the rising population of the urban poor—with the right interventions from local governments and businesses. Splash also leverages local supply chains, partnerships, and design solutions to make its WASH intervention affordable, innovative, and self-sustaining.

To get water-filtration systems to Chinese orphanages, Stowe approached Antunes, a group that supplies filtration to McDonald’s restaurants globally. Working together, the two groups developed, designed, and manufactured more than 10 iterations of the VZN Ultrafiltration water system, adapting it to function with a low level of maintenance and cartridge replacement.

“We were putting insanely turbid, really filthy water into them,” Stowe says. “We wanted 50 percent less stainless steel to bring down the cost, higher volume, 30 percent less plastic, et cetera.” The Antunes VZN system is now one of the company’s most popular filtration products.

Splash continually refines the design for its drinking-water and handwashing stations, with sustainability as a major consideration. A 2015 UNICEF report states that 30 to 50 percent of WASH projects fail in less than five years. “There are absolute graveyards of these failed WASH projects globally because people weren’t thinking about the design,” Stowe says. “They were not thinking about the usability, the volume of kids, or withstanding the local environment—from natural disasters to vandalism.”

water sanitation and hygiene filtration system
Splash collaborated with a commercial supplier on the design of the VZN Ultrafiltration water-filtration system, seen here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Courtesy Gavin Gough.

To meet these requirements, Splash’s drinking-water and handwashing stations are durable, configurable, vandal proof, child friendly, and colorful. To be attractive to local governments, they are also affordable, easy to clean and service, and resistant to clogging.

“The software component of our intervention is so important,” Stowe says. “We call it the enabling environment.” That’s because human compliance is a big part of curbing waterborne diseases. Splash targets urban schoolchildren not only because they are the most affected by waterborne diseases but also because they are more malleable when it comes to changing behaviors and can influence their families at home with the hygienic habits they learn at school. “These kids have a lot of power over their parents to change their thoughts and behaviors, like with hand washing,” he says.

Splash’s stations are also angled so that the kids can face each other in accordance with UNICEF guidelines to encourage handwashing. Splash tries every available tactic to influence a child’s behavior: hygiene clubs for social reinforcement, songs that ingrain the rules, strategic placement of stations, painted footsteps toward the stations, and flashy colors and logos.

“Our No. 1 goal is to create a gravitational orbit around these stations,” Stowe says. “If we get kids close enough, they’ll wash their hands. We’ve done everything, and one of the most effective ingredients for getting kids close is putting up a mirror. Kids are supervisual! When handwashing stations include mirrors, we have found that kids are far more likely to wash their hands.”

In October 2017, Splash partnered with the Autodesk Foundation to further refine its handwashing and drinking-water stations.

Because Splash does all of its prototyping and manufacturing locally, it doesn’t yet have the benefit of rapid prototyping through additive manufacturing. The collaboration with Autodesk grew from Stowe’s frustration with the challenges of fiberglass prototypes and wooden molds made by hand. Long term, Splash envisions utilizing recycled plastic as the source plastic for Splash’s stations, bringing discarded plastic from water bottles back into the schools in the form of drinking-water and handwashing stations.

With third-party engineers using Autodesk AutoCAD and Civil 3D, Splash can make greater progress toward its eventual goal in each of its cities of operation: to prove its WASH solutions in schools that local governments can take over and scale. Working in AutoCAD helps optimize Splash’s stations, maximizing the flow of water in and waste out, and hones its design so the stations essentially can work as plug-and-play prefabricated units for a wide variety of schools.

water sanitation and hygiene hand washing stations
Children in more than 140 Indian schools use Splash’s handwashing stations to protect them from waterborne diseases. Courtesy Gavin Gough.

“If you look in aggregate across an entire city, we can use Civil 3D to share our work with the water and sewage authorities, construction bureaus, and education bureaus to show the government what it’s going to take to provide WASH for the whole city,” Stowe says. He notes that it’s a way to advocate to governments and say, “‘We’ve designed it for you; now, you do the construction.’”

In his TedxSeattle talk, Stowe prescribes the act of “killing your charity.” For every region Splash enters, it has an exit strategy, wherein the WASH solutions Splash has implemented are proven for the local government to take over and scale. For example, in Kathmandu, Splash’s installed filtration systems provide more clean water than the schools need so that schools can sell water to the local community at below market rate, with the proceeds going back to the schools to fund ongoing maintenance and operations.

“The intent should be to scale the solution, not the organization,” Stowe says. “We believe we can exit China in the next two years. The Chinese government can take this on in perpetuity. Now that we’ve created the ecosystem, that’s possible and affordable. We’re really excited about that.”

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