No Filter: The Truth About Clean Water Volunteer Projects Abroad

by Rebecca Murphy

Access to clean water is one of the most basic human needs, as well as one of the largest harms to society. It is estimated that over 7 million people die each year as a result of lack of access to potable water and proper sanitation. Because this is such a large and heartbreaking issue, it is easy to get swept into the romance of saving lives and making real change...and unfortunately, a lot of companies try to monetize off of those good intentions.

Before signing up for volunteer abroad water projects, it is crucial to find out if the project is actually beneficial. To help with playing the inevitable “sketchy or not?” game, let’s break down the good, the bad, and the ugly about clean water volunteer projects.

Children in Burundi

The Good

There is no doubt that clean water conservation volunteer opportunities are among the most needed and life-changing activities in the world; nowadays, there are so many different programs and projects available. Regardless of the scope of the water purification project or region of the world, there are huge benefits of clean water activities:

Save Lives

Every year, almost a million people in Africa die due to water-related illnesses. In countries such as Ethiopia, only about 20% of the population has access to clean water. For people who are privileged enough to always have access to clean water, we forget how many people around the world lack this basic resource and subsequently don’t realize how much it influences an entire community. Volunteer water projects in Africa and beyond can quite literally save lives, teach people how to be safer and healthier, and help prevent the future spread of bacteria and illnesses. 

Build a Stronger Community

When things like water and health become insignificant issues, it means that struggling communities can focus on what’s next. Things like education, making sanitary living conditions, and healthier food become important because the community has the resources to support these improvements. Eliminating the smaller-scale setbacks allows for room to solve the big picture issues, leading to healthier and more successful generations in the future.

Strengthen the Economy

Water quality influences more things than just human health and education. With clean water comes healthier crops and products, leading to stronger businesses and more opportunities. People who had no way to make money will be able to live off their land or start a different type of business with new resources. Not only does this strengthen the local economy, but an ongoing increase in tourism to the area boosts the national economy as well.

Children getting water from an open faucet

The Bad

With any type of volunteer project, there is always the risk that a specific provider or program is doing something shady, and it is particularly difficult to see this when you are doing most of your research online and not in person. When trying to decide on a clean water project provider, the main red flags include:

Are you paying to do this? Where is the money going to?

The first question volunteers need to ask when selecting a provider is what does it cost to do this and why. The biggest red flags come from a very large price tag and an incomplete breakdown of what your money is being used for. On top of your own money, it is also important to know what the company’s donations are going to if they are part of the business model. It is not uncommon to hear about NGOs and other non-profit companies being busted for inflated budgets and unaccounted spending, so it is crucial that you know the money is going to help the community and not the CEO’s bank account.

Is this managed by a reputable organization?

Generally speaking, the larger and older an organization is, the more sustainable and helpful the organization typically is. Chances are that providers who have been around for years and have successfully installed many water systems probably have the quality systems and checkpoints needed to really help the host community. Be sure to really do your research on reputable water conservation volunteer projects, read reviews, and select a provider that is certified and has proof of success, community integration, and sustainability.

Who is ensuring that the water is actually clean?

It is safe to say that most of the work done on these projects is completed by volunteers, but who does the program have as part of their business model who can verify that each project is actually done correctly? Unless there are engineers, doctors, or other professionals involved in the implementation and quality testing, it is probably not as legitimate of a program as it could be. Something as important as clean water projects should not be managed by inexperienced volunteers.

People drinking water in a bottle

How do the locals and professionals feel about it?

We realize that it may be difficult to find out a local perspective if you’re on the other side of the world, but try to at least do some online research. See if you can find an online newspaper from the region you are thinking about and run it through Google Translate so you can know first-hand if this project is necessary and helpful. If the locals don’t agree with it, chances are that it is not a good idea. Also, don’t be afraid to look into research pieces completed by water purification and regional specialists. These may bring factors to your attention that you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

Is the business model applicable for the region?

This may seem obvious, but oftentimes companies make huge oversights and assumptions that can prove fatal to the business and its volunteers. For example, is the company a Christian company that travels to Muslim regions and installs water filters in exchange for spiritual guidance opportunities? This may seem harmless, but in certain areas around the world, having a conversation about a different set of beliefs is no small matter (and can even lead to dangerous situations for the volunteers).

Also, does the company publicize that this is their business model? There is nothing inherently wrong with religious volunteer work, but make sure that their mission and values don’t detract from solving a clean water crisis.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, not all clean water volunteer programs are created equal, and it is important that you really do your research when selecting an area and provider for your project. Unless there will be a legitimate system installed and a way to make it sustainable, it may ultimately create more harm than help. The last thing a volunteer should want to do is hurt the community they are volunteering in, so knowing all of the factors is key. Some examples of the repercussions of irresponsible water purification systems include:

A woman watering plants

The Possibility of Serious Environmental Issues

If implemented incorrectly, a water system could lead to flooding, erosion, mold and bacteria infestations, or -- ironically -- drought. All of these would have damaging, long-term effects on the community and its environment, and could even lead to serious injury, illness, or death. If a water system floods and fills everyone’s homes with 2 feet of water while drowning their crops, suddenly the town has to deal with erosion and homelessness on top of not having drinking water again.

The Potential for Bacteria in the Water

When a provider comes into a community and promises to give them clean water, the locals are obviously going to be under the assumption that their water is clean, which means that they are going to drink a lot of it. If it turns out that the provider did not test everything in the system, there could be deadly bacteria in the water and lead to the spread of many diseases. The community is trusting the provider and volunteers to give them a safe way to drink water, so the testing and quality evaluation process should be flawless.

The Project’s Sustainability Could Falter

If there no system put into place to notify the provider if a component is broken, something could break a week after installation and the community will be without water again. Unless there is training for the community built into the water purification process or ongoing communication between the provider and the community, there is a very real chance that they could be back to square one after the volunteers leave, making all of your efforts meaningless.

Where is the Greatest Need for Clean Water Projects?

There are so many people suffering in Africa that volunteers can pick almost any country and there will be a need for volunteers. However, the countries that are suffering the most include:

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and thousands of people die every day from drought and malnutrition. Most of its population has to walk up to six hours per day to collect water, and there is no guarantee that the water they find will be clean. The contaminated water can lead to huge breakouts of cholera and dysentery, killing even more people. This doesn’t factor in the amount of people who die from heat exhaustion, starvation, and injury while walking six hours to find water.

There are several areas in Ghana that are heavily impacted by water crisis, and their remote locations mean that they are unlikely to receive help. Few families have access to clean water, so it is no surprise that waterborne diseases are some of the most common health issues in the region. Guinea worm is the most prevalent, and it could be wiped out just by having clean drinking water.

Water coming out of a fountain
Most clean water volunteer projects are healthy, sustainable, and beneficial, but it never hurts to make sure that you are participating in something truly worthwhile.

Without knowing what type of change is needed, who is implementing it, and how it will affect the host culture, you’re not building a sustainable and healthy future, you’re helping to build a brand. Take the time to do your research to ensure that you are really volunteering and traveling meaningfully, and not just contributing to feel-good fluff.