14 Apr 2009

Water First -- The Review

Last week, I watched Water First: Reaching The Millennium Development Goals, "an inspiring story from Malawi [which] shows that clean water is essential for the achievement of the UN's Millennium Development Goals." The film was directed by Amy Hart and released by Bullfrog Films.

I liked the film very much.

The documentary follows Charles Banda, the Malawian founder of Freshwater Project, as he pushes forward his shoestring operation to drill wells in villages that lack access to water. (Girls and women walk 5 km to get 20 liters of dirty water that they carry back on their heads.)

FWP has been around for about 10 years and has "brought water" to about 600,000 Malawians. Even assuming that FWP spent their current budget ($70,000/year) in each of these years, it's a remarkable achievement that they have managed to INSTALL water supplies for just over $1/person. (All of these numbers come from the movie, so I am taking them as accurate.)

Here are a few things I liked about FWP:
  • Banda targets those "in need" who cannot afford water. This is a subjective rule, but he -- as a local -- is a better judge (than foreigners) of who "needs" water.
  • Villagers MUST contribute sweat equity and materials (sand, bricks, etc.) to the projects, so they see the projects as their own.
  • Banda makes a VERY good point that hardly any MDGs (gender equality, education, etc.) can be reached without water. In economic terms, water is necessary but not sufficient for development
  • When water sources are clean, it's not necessary to boil water before drinking. Lower demand for firewood means that trees and scrub stay in place. When it rains, there is less run off (because the roots stop flows) and more water filters into groundwater, increasing supply to the wells.
In addition, I really liked the wisdom of the local people:
If we were rich and we had money, the government would have come to assist us, but we are poor.
See any parallels with AIG, subprime housing, etc?

I recommend this film to people who want to learn (or teach others) about water in the developing world. (I saw the 45-minute version, which has more on Banda. There's also a 28-minute version.)

Banda's Bottom Line: "If he has no water and needs water, then he drinks death."


  1. "You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away people's initiative and independence. You cannot help people permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves."

    Abraham Lincoln

  2. FYI, while planting trees can be useful for a suite of reasons, increasing water supply is not one of them. That's a myth. Greater evapotranspiration overwhelms any increase in infiltration.

  3. @Abe -- Agreed. Care to link to the post?

    @DC -- I'd say that's an empirical matter that depends on erosin, slope, etc., but I take your point.

  4. There are also tremendous human and financial costs associated with poor water quality. At the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town (15 years ago), I saw a room with perhaps 20 children moving from IV to oral rehydration due to diarrhea caused by bad water. This has a toll on the health care system, the family, and most importantly the child. Finally, how much time, mostly of women and children is spent carrying water? Day after day, they spend hours doing what a small pipe could accomplish. Much more economically productive tasks like gardening or crafting could be undertaken.


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