How the Global Water Crisis is Leaving Two Billion Women Behind

Community Leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia // Photo Courtesy of Water.org

Guest Blog By: Alix Lebec, Founder and CEO at Lebec Consulting, & Katie Orr, COO at Lebec Consulting

What’s the first thing you do in the morning? Use the bathroom? Brush your teeth? Make coffee? Imagine if you walked up to the sink, turned on the faucet, and nothing happened. No clean teeth, no morning jolt. And the toilet isn’t even there. What would you do?

That scenario seems like a strange dream to those of us who won the birthright lottery. But for about 2.5 billion people around the world — roughly 35% of the global population — this is daily life.[1] And when you narrow that pool to women, it gets dramatically worse.

On this International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting the compound issues women face alongside the global water crisis — as well as scalable, innovative solutions to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges. This is our call to action for governments, philanthropists, and capital markets to come together to create real systems change. As Greta Thunberg says, “we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.”

Women and Water are Inextricably Linked

For women, the water crisis extends far beyond morning discomforts — and it’s deeply personal. Over the course of a woman’s life, the water crisis becomes a crisis of education, economics, personal safety, dignity, and health.

In fact, in the current environment, from the day many girls in developing countries are born, their future is already decided for them. One in five girls of primary school age will forego an education, and spend up to six hours a day either walking with their mother to gather water from a distant natural source, or standing in long lines to gather water from a local tap — which will more than likely run dry before they get their turn.[2] Collectively, these women and girls spend 200 million hours each day finding and bringing home water.[3]

In practical terms, this creates an irreversible domino effect:

→ If a girl doesn’t go to school, she doesn’t get an education.This disproportionately affects her as she grows into womanhood, and faces challenges securing a job or starting a small business.

→ This affects her ability to contribute to the income of her family — which, by extension, limits the financial ability of that family to secure a safe water connection — and she ultimately may end up following the same path as her mother.

→ In this daily quest, if her family ingests contaminated water from a ground source, she faces the compound issue of caring for children with major illness — the cure for which is often, ironically, clean water. (Tragically, 6,000 children die every day from waterborne and sanitation-related diseases, including diarrhoeal disease and malaria.[4] Further, one million people overall die unnecessarily each year from preventable water-related diseases.[5])

→ All of this means that the local economy suffers as well, without the valuable contributions of women who are willing and able to work — but instead tied to this daily burden of gathering water. If all women were able to work, it is projected that global GDP would rise by $28 trillion annually.[6]

As of now, the options for so many women in these developing countries are non-existent. Families desperately need water, as much as they need air. They need it for drinking, cooking, sanitation, and hygiene — in essence, basic survival. In this era of global pandemics and droughts induced by climate change, this has never been more vital and urgent.

Further, we often fail to consider the myriad of other devastating nuances that affect women throughout their lifecycle due to the water crisis. For instance, if a girl approaching puberty and entering menstruation is fortunate enough to attend school, but there is no piped bathroom available, this creates a humiliating situation. Often, girls opt to stay home anyway, for this reason alone. Or, for instance, if a woman needs to relieve herself in the middle of the night, but has no facilities, she is forced to go out in the dark and search for a space outdoors. This leaves her open and vulnerable to unsafe scenarios. And in the daylight, this act of defecation in an open field takes away every bit of a woman’s dignity.

The Good News

Just as these two crises — gender inequality, and the lack of access to clean water and sanitation — compound each other, the solutions are symbiotic. Women are the key to solving the water crisis, and we’ve already seen this unfold. Over 90% of low-income clients taking out small, affordable microloans to pay for improved water and sanitation solutions in their homes are women. And these microloans continue to be repaid at the rate of 97–99% within 12–24 months.

The global non-profit Water.org — which pioneered this model of microfinance for water and sanitation — has continued to demonstrate tremendous scale and progress. So far, they’ve successfully helped 33 million people with this approach. And WaterEquity — a global asset manager launched by Water.org — greatly magnified this solution by bringing impact investors to the table. This has ultimately helped financial institutions in India, Indonesia, and Cambodia scale their water and sanitation microloan portfolios for people living in poverty — with women representing 93% of microloan recipients.

This trend of women being a force for effective change is reflected all the way up the decision-making ladder. Whether in positions of leadership across governments, businesses, financial institutions, start-ups, or local communities — women reinvest more in their communities and families. And they actually outperform many of their male peers.

Addressing global gender inequality cannot be accomplished without clean water for all. And ensuring equitable access to clean water and sanitation cannot be accomplished without empowering and elevating women in their communities — and in decision-making roles across every industry.

The Path Forward: Venture Philanthropy and Global Capital Markets

Traditional philanthropy alone is not going to solve this crisis. To begin chipping away at such a massive issue, we need to vastly multiply the amount of capital allocated to its solutions. If we can effectively leverage capital market forces, we have the ability to make great strides in the water crisis and, by extension, the women’s crisis.

Above all, it is critical that philanthropists and impact investors begin to recognize two key truths:

1. Global capital markets are imperative — and should be used as a force for good. Currently, due in large part to The Giving Pledge, we know that 216 of the wealthiest individuals across 24 countries have pledged to give at least half of their wealth to charity — representing approximately $600 billion. In America alone, billionaires added $1 trillion to their collective wealth since the start of the global pandemic.[7] So, the opportunities to donate and invest are there in excess. But in order to harness the power of capital markets and make a great impact, we must make mainstream philanthropy more akin to venture philanthropy. This means fostering a philanthropic mindset that accepts necessary-yet-calculated risks to achieve the results that we know are possible — supporting models and solutions that ensure institutional capital becomes an accelerator of social justice. In other words: venture philanthropy.

If you look at any successful investment portfolio out there, particularly in private equity, investing patient capital with a manager you trust — and taking commensurate risk for the performance you want to achieve — is par for the course. In order to create monumental change — and really move the needle on the issues affecting our people and planet — we need to think along the same lines within philanthropy, and address the source of global challenges.

This is the most effective way to achieve maximum impact and scale. And, importantly, it removes obstacles — ensuring that people can help themselves, and making the model highly sustainable. After all, people living in poverty are not a problem to be solved, but a market to be served.

2. Philanthropy and impact investing today should be in the business of systemic change. Few funders are willing to “go big.” In most cases today, they focus on funding specific initiatives, rather than providing unrestricted funding to innovate, scale, and generate systems change. Instead, philanthropic grant-makers need to focus on funding ideas that address issues at their source, and challenge the very systems that continue to reinforce inequality. Catalytic impact from a capital standpoint — as well as systemic change — is where you want to live within philanthropy. That’s what will make you stand out from the rest and allow you to do something transformative. Grantmakers need to stop tracking dollar for dollar and maintaining the status quo. Instead, they need to recognize that the markets to be served are out there in full force — and the people embedded in those markets are ready and willing to participate, and be the change they so desperately need.

With that in mind: While it is inspiring to see more and more foundations, corporations, banks, and ultra-high-net-worth individuals venture into social impact investing and/or step up their commitments — we believe there is so much more to be done. Importantly, we need philanthropic support and investment capital that matches the scale of these issues and solutions — and that requires the willingness to think bigger, and take calculated risks. When philanthropists and investors marry what matters to them with what’s needed across the globe, they can maximize their impact — both near and far.[8]

Perhaps most importantly, we need more women in decision-making roles to revolutionize this change. Because we cannot talk about female empowerment and reducing gender inequality without first discussing how we will solve the global water crisis.

About Lebec Consulting: Lebec Consulting specializes in helping corporations, foundations, social entrepreneurs, and high-net-worth individuals achieve their greatest social impact through strategic philanthropy and impact investments. With sustainability, innovation, and systems change at the center of our strategy, we think outside the box and look beyond traditional philanthropy. Our goal is to provide these key stakeholders with the best possible roadmap to achieve impact in ways that will truly reverse the tides of global inequality.

Footnotes:

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This represents the number of people who lack access to an improved water source — a pipe connection or well. As of March 2021.

[2] United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). As of March 2021.

[3] Water.org. As of March 2021.

[4] UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) 2019 Report

[5] WHO. As of March 2021.

[6] McKinsey & Company. As of September 2015.

[7] Forbes. As of May 2020.

[8] Merrill Lynch. As of February 2020.

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WaterEquity is the first asset manager exclusively focused on solving the most urgent issue of our time — the global water and climate crisis.

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WaterEquity

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WaterEquity is the first asset manager exclusively focused on solving the most urgent issue of our time — the global water and climate crisis.

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