By Nathan Ohle, executive director, RCAP
Your recent article, “Water Systems Are in Crisis. How Can Funders Help?” highlighted many of today’s most pressing water issues. Ensuring that all people have access to safe and affordable water and wastewater systems is perhaps the single largest issue we face today. Water access and safety is commonly considered a developing country problem, but that misses the reality that thousands of places in the United States struggle with similar challenges.
Consider: the average age of a water pipe in the US is 47 years. Last year alone 1.7 trillion gallons of water escaped from those pipes – depleting natural resources and placing unnecessary economic burdens on small communities. Every day, six billion gallons of treated drinking water are lost in the US alone, an amount sufficient to support 15 million households.
Few would argue the imperative for all communities across the country to have access to safe drinking water and wastewater management systems. The single most expensive, yet impactful, capital investment a rural community will ever make is in its water systems. Without access to affordable, reliable water, families struggle; public health is imperiled; economic opportunity languishes; and social fabric breaks down.
Infrastructure remains the responsibility of governments, and charitable funding obviously can never address global infrastructure needs. Where, then, is the philanthropic opportunity?
We believe it lies in supporting organizations and programs that strengthen the knowledge, skills and management capacity of local elected officials, community leaders, water system boards and water operators. As you aptly note, “integrated strategies that encourage collaboration among funders, water system managers, policy makers, NGOs and community groups” is the pathway for equitable water management, especially in small and rural communities.
The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), protects that investment through a place-based, locally-led approach to water management. Working in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, RCAP empowers community leaders and helps them develop sustainable solutions to their problems. Partnering with private foundations, community foundations and government, NGOs like RCAP help small water systems remain in regulatory compliance, build their own capacity and finance improvements to aging infrastructure.
The depth and breadth of knowledge, technical skills, management expertise and financial resources RCAP brings to these communities offers philanthropic partners a route to achieving impact at scale in many of the country’s most distressed communities. Every region of the country has its own unique water issues, whether it is a water shortage in California, lead issues in Michigan, or climate-related issues on the coasts. The beauty of NGOs like RCAP is that they are on the ground working with LOCAL leaders on LOCAL issues relating to water.
What would a partnership look like? When partnering with a national network like RCAP, the funder can determine the area of focus or even geography in which they want to invest. If a funder wants to assist tribal communities, the RCAP network provides on-site technical, managerial and financial assistance to tribal community water and wastewater systems throughout the Great Plains and Midwest through its partner, the Midwest Assistance Program. Natural disaster preparedness and recovery? Hear about the work that RCAP Solutions and Communities Unlimited (CU) are doing in Puerto Rico and Texas in response to Hurricanes Maria and Harvey. Want to assist communities focused on lead service lines? RCAP network partner WSOS Community Action Agency is working closely with small communities in Michigan and Ohio to address this issue. Worried about safe drinking water in schools? Learn about the Agua4All program that the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) piloted in California.
What about assisting communities of color in creating equitable opportunities in accessing safe drinking water? Look no further than RCAP network partner SERCAP, which is working with communities throughout the Southeast to improve their water and wastewater systems with a particular focus on helping communities of color. What if you are focused on assisting Colonias communities along the US/Mexico border? RCAP network partners CU and RCAC have mapped every Colonia and their priority needs related to water, and are now implementing strategies to assist those communities most in need.
Take for example the City of Milton, Delaware. Milton is a town of 2,700 that is dealing with sea level rise, including concerns about surface water/water quality for their residents. Milton created one of the first ever Sustainability Officers for a community this size, and SERCAP was able to help the community create a philanthropic partnership to create a long-term sustainability plan. Because SERCAP is working in communities like Milton across the Southeast, when funders and partners are looking for unique or innovative ideas, they have relationships already built with rural communities across their region. These partnerships create models that can be replicated for communities across the country with similar demographics and concerns.
Finding NGO partners that are doing great work is not hard, building unique partnerships can be. Philanthropic – NGO collaborations do not only imply funding. Often, it is about finding unique collaborations that leverage existing funding while being a catalyst for change and thought leadership. When philanthropic partners commit to providing the essential operations, technical, financial and management skills for small communities, they can lead the way toward ensuring that homes, day care centers, clinics, schools, and businesses have access to safe, affordable drinking water for generations to come.
The challenges around water, especially in small communities, are large, but the right partnerships lead to a collective impact that lifts up communities in need, while providing equitable access to water for all.
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