Water, Water, Water and Rotary Club of Washington DC

Rotary Club members from Washington and Paris gathered in mid-April for cultural exchange and something greater—entering the global policy arena for water. To kick off the initiative, they assembled 24 ambassadors along with leaders from the development community at the National Press Club in Washington to participate in the International Summit on Water in Developing Countries.

Don Marx, president of the DC Rotary club, said that “traditionally our role has been as an implementing partner at the country level or at the community level, so we are kind of notching it up one and saying we want to play at the national and global policy level.”

That ambition comes from a successful past. Rotary spearheads the lauded, ongoing campaign to eradicate polio. At the start of the initiative in 1985, polio infected over 350,000 children annually; just 1,700 cases were reported in 2009.

The enthusiasm for a repeat with water, sanitation, and hygiene may need to be tempered, however. Solving the water problem is “significantly more complicated than eradicating a single disease like polio,” says John Oldfield, managing director at the WASH Advocacy Initiative. He said that there are “lots of concerns, which Rotary is upfront about, around sustainability.”

Ron Denham, chair of WASRAG, a group within Rotary working on water issues, says that fewer than 30 percent of the water systems installed in developing countries over the last five years are still performing. He cited equipment shortages, lack of access to spare parts and inadequate technical expertise as reasons for the poor record. When those factors combine, he said, “the result is a disaster.”

Peter Sawyer, Pulitzer Center