In May, UNICEF and the World Health Organization released a report on global improvements in water and sanitation between 1990 and 2012. Many of the findings are encouraging.

In 2012:

  • 89% of the population had access to an improved drinking water source, an increase of 2.3 billion people.
  • 64% of the population had access to an improved sanitation facility – up 15% from 1990.

But there’s still so much work to do. Improvements in water and sanitation are particularly slow to reach the rural poor:

  • 750 million people still rely on an unimproved source for their drinking water.
  • 82% of the world’s population without improved drinking water sources live in rural areas.
  • One billion people still practice open defecation; nine out of 10 are in rural areas.

What’s more, according to Al Jazeera the world faces a water crisis by 2040 because of water-intensive power production. Water used to cool power plants is the number one source of water withdrawals in the United States.

How are social entrepreneurs tackling these problems?

Of those one billion people still practicing open defecation, more than 600 million are in India. As BBC reports, shared toilets in India’s slums are sorely insufficient. In Mumbai, government officials report that they can’t find the land to build public toilets. And attitudes and traditions are making it difficult for the government to convince people to use toilets in rural areas.
A recent Economist article explains these cultural issues in greater depth.

Skoll awardee Water for People is trying to scale up toilet sales in Bihar state, where the government has set specific goals to reach full sanitation coverage. Working with a local partner, Basix, they’ve made it easier and cheaper for people to buy toilets. They’ve got 24 entrepreneurs selling 5 to 30 toilets per month, but it isn’t enough. There are more than three million people without toilets in the districts where the entrepreneurs work. Read Water for People’s John Sauer writing in Huffington Post about how they’re going in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.

Scale is everything

Like Water for People and so many other entrepreneurs, Evidence Action is struggling to get their Dispensers for Safe Water program to scale. They’re providing safe drinking water to two million people in Eastern and Southern Africa, but they want to get to 25 million by 2018. To that end, they’ve partnered with One Acre Fund to help get their chlorine out to rural customers. Read about how they had to evolve their partnership as they discovered that the distribution model didn’t make sense.

No easy problem

Elsewhere in Africa, researchers working with Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor are discovering that managing human waste is a complicated proposition. They traveled to municipalities in Mozambique, Kenya and Ghana to compare the excreta management ladder in each place: the collection, transportation, transfer, treatment, and ultimately disposal or valorization of waste. They found that treatment and disposal are the most difficult stages due to the number of players involved, high costs and jurisdiction issues. They conclude that municipal authorities must take the lead in managing this part of the process.

152 million hours co-founder Matt Damon just did the ALSA Ice Bucket Challenge, but in honor of the 800 million people in the world who don’t have access to a clean drink of water and the 2.4 billion who lack access to adequate sanitation, he chose to dump icy toilet water on his head. Watch: