Audacious Water
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Audacious Water

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Why Water Tech Won’t Work Without Social Infrastructure

A Conversation with RCAP’s Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes

Technology solutions alone don’t solve water access problems for the 2 million people in the United States who have to get their water at the nearest Walmart or by trading goods and services for milk jugs full of it. We need also to understand which investments in social infrastructure — from new business models to informal governance structures to enforce public health standards — will accelerate uptake of new technology.

That’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) has just awarded ASU/Future H2O a five-year grant to examine the role investments in social infrastructure play in the success of new water treatment systems in colonias — unincorporated settlements along the US-Mexico border whose residents make up about one-third of the people in the United States without access to reliable water. On the grant, we’re partnering with the NGO Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), which is already deeply embedded with the communities of the colonias from Texas to California.

What has RCAP learned about the importance of social infrastructure, trust and data collection in improving water access for these communities? I asked Nathan Ohle, CEO of RCAP, and Laura Landes, RCAP research associate, to talk about what RCAP has learned in its work in the colonias about the importance of social infrastructure, trust and data to delivering better water access to these communities.

John Sabo: Why focus on colonias when it comes to water access? How is RCAP currently supporting issues related to clean water access in the colonias, and what opportunities do you see for further improving what’s already happening?

Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes: The colonias are such an important region of the country when it comes to water and wastewater access. The complex issues facing these communities mean that long-term, dedicated work is required to build trust and ensure each community can build the capacity to sustain their water or wastewater access.

RCAP has worked directly with colonias communities through our regional partners Communities Unlimited (CU) and Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) for years to help them build capacity for long-term sustainability and to improve quality of life, including health and economic outcomes, for residents. Our technical assistance providers (TAPs) build capacity in communities through technical, managerial, and financial training and technical assistance for water and wastewater services throughout the colonias.

The complex issues facing these communities mean that long-term, dedicated work is required to build trust and ensure each community can build the capacity to sustain their water or wastewater access.

— Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes

RCAP is working with a number of colonias on regionalization projects (bringing communities together into partnership) that are meant to drive economies of scale and encourage collaboration instead of competition, helping the region grow and prosper and ensuring access to safe drinking water and sanitary wastewater.

John Sabo: When it comes to water we’ve learned that new technology never proves very useful or sustainable when it’s not accompanied by investments in social and supporting physical infrastructure. What role has social infrastructure, such as new business models and new public health standards, specifically played in the success of your existing programs?

Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes: Something we have learned that is crucial to the success of building up a well-functioning utility is building the human capital that is necessary to sustain it. That’s one reason why trainings and technical assistance targeted for capacity building at the community level are such an important part of our mission.

Without local leadership in running a water system, an understanding of the commitment it takes, and access to training and opportunities to earn credits and take exams to become certified, communities struggle to manage to operate a water or wastewater utility. RCAP also offers board trainings to help community decision-makers understand the importance and complexity of water utilities — because if the local decision-makers aren’t on board with improving a system, it probably isn’t going to happen.

As for new kinds of social infrastructure, a great example of that is in our regionalization work building partnerships between communities. Sometimes these partnerships evolve to include the creation of new governance structures (and sometimes that new structure turns out to be the only way to disrupt the status quo of poor water quality, unaffordable rates, or innumerable other issues communities face). Without the right human capital built on the front-end of these conversations, trust building and successful collaboration can be very difficult, showing why we believe that building human capital is the first step to building the right social infrastructure that allows for technology adoption.

John Sabo: Trust-building will be foundational to our work together. How has RCAP been able to establish trust within the colonias specifically and how can we continue to build trust?

Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes: What makes RCAP truly unique is our trusted relationships on the ground with communities. RCAP’s approach is long-term in nature, meaning we are there to build capacity and to help the utility understand the underlying issues that are affecting their ability to maintain and sustain their system. RCAP’s technical assistance providers live and work in every state, including Puerto Rico and USVI, and have long-term trusted relationships with tens of thousands of rural and tribal communities.

We also understand that trust cannot be rushed. Often, RCAP works with the same communities over long periods of time to make sure that not only do they build capacity to run and sustain their system, but that they have the skills, expertise and resources necessary to maintain that capacity. Building trust can take years and requires continuity of contact. In the colonias, that trust can only be built with time, by engaging communities and often starting small to build big. These communities need to know who you are before they are ready to work alongside you.

Without local leadership in running a water system, an understanding of the commitment it takes, and access to training and opportunities to earn credits and take exams to become certified, communities struggle to manage to operate a water or wastewater utility.

— Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes

John Sabo: Collecting the right data in this first phase will give us the information necessary to tailor solutions unique to each community’s needs. What role do you see improved data playing in your work and our ability to eventually scale solutions across all colonias?

Nathan Ohle & Laura Landes: Improved data is always a benefit when it comes to communicating needs to decision-makers and funders. Ideally having a better sense of needs, and being better able to tell the story of the colonias, will create additional opportunities to do more of this important work. Additionally, it has helped that RCAP performed a needs assessment a few years ago, assigning priority levels to colonias communities. This allowed us to address the greatest needs first. This data is a few years old now, so additional information on the state of colonias can only help us to understand their needs better.

Additionally, the outcomes of this project will help us to hone our assistance to be even more effective. Understanding what social structures need to be in place before undertaking a project focused on physical infrastructure, and building that understanding across both of the RCAP regional organizations that work in colonias, will be important best practices or lessons learned to add to the arsenal that the TAPs (who already base their work in years of experience) have.

For more information about ASU Future H2O’s work and research on creating opportunities for global water abundance, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

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