Success Stories and Student Experiences

Many students from the University of Pennsylvania and other Philadelphia-based universities come from other countires and/or have done projects in the developing world. The following represent some of their stories:

Allyson Amster: Water in India

My rickshaw passes by informal housing on my daily commute to work. Some days, I catch site of the water truck and the queue of people waiting patiently. It is along this same road that I watch children wade knee deep in stagnant, filthy water that floods periodically from road construction.

All around the city, buildings advertise their water harvesting schemes and government billboards tell people to save water. Yet, I’ve never paid a water bill. My water, which is not safe to drink, runs through the pipes with few problems – from time to time it stops, but it always returns with little inconvenience to me or my flatmates. Just like so many of the city’s middle and upper class residents, a water shortage to us means not taking a second shower in an attempt to escape Delhi’s scorching heat. Never does it mean dehydration or water-borne illness – we are well sheltered from these problems.

Addressing problems of water scarcity will not be easy. Water scarcity here, like so much of the world, is an issue of quantity and quality. The Yamuna, the river that flows through Delhi, is dead. The Coliform count reveals a sewage conduit, the dissolved oxygen level is zero, and BOD/COD levels are too high for treatment. Properly treating the waste water of 15 million people will require massive investment, which would not really help the river given how many people are not even connected to sewage lines. It’s not impossible, but the solution will require innovative thinking, rejecting traditional solutions in favor of locally feasible, locally tailored solutions. It will also necessitate confronting issues of equity and the growing income gap between the city’s residents.

Mayosha Mendis(Sri Lanka)

Ms. Mendis is currently working at the Environmental Protection Agency Headquarter, in Washington D.C. She has been actively involved with the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative on bringing awareness to local schools on the topics of water and sanitation. Recently, Ms. Mendis has developed the WASH program that links eight Philadelphia area schools with schools in developing countries. By reaching out to the same age group abroad, local students are educated on the developing crisis and learn to appreciate the opportunities they have, such as the ability to attend school. Most children, especially females, in areas without clean water, struggle to attend school. On top of that, they must spend eight hours a day walking to the nearest water source to fetch the family water, only to develop sores on their backs from carrying heavy jugs.  There is no privacy in open-air bathrooms, which causes females enough embarrassment to stay home from school. The program has facilitated the construction of bathrooms and water pumps from donations from partner schools. Ms. Mendis is also an advocate for the Water Ambassadors program.  Working with WASH, student ambassdors are trained as spokespeople on the global water crisis and help inform their peers of the situation.

As a native of Sri Lanka, Ms. Mendis has seen how the different access to clean water can make in a community. She believes the efforts of PGWI stand out from other organizations. She sees the unprecedented wealth of knowledge held by PGWI members and its partnerships with experienced consultants and water companies as invaluable assets. PGWI uses an educated approach by studying past experiences of other groups. Projects focus on sustainability and accountability: recognizing that pumps and bathrooms need regular maintenance to function.

If you would like to get involved in the WASH program or become a Water Ambassador, please contact Mayosha Mendis at

Amy Freeze (United States)

A graduate of the Environmental Science program at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Freeze is currently the chief meteorologist for FOX TV in Chicago. For her Capstone project at Penn, Ms. Freeze developed a storm water alert program. The system alerts the public in urban areas when heavy rain is expected to minimize the impact on water quality and reduce combined sewer overflow. Now as a meteorologist, she takes every opportunity to share what she learned during her time at Penn so viewers can make informed water decisions. In each report, she explains how weather will impact the community, what to expect, and how to combat any problems.

Because she can capture the local attention when heavy storms arise, Ms. Freeze helps the public understand how water affects their small community so it can be applied to global settings. She emphasizes the importance of communications and public education in solving the globe’s water problems. While most people have the experience of clear, fresh water running endlessly out of their home tap, they have no idea the struggle the rest of the world faces.  She believes that an education like the one she received from the Department of Environmental Sciences is key.   Understanding the problem and asking the questions that need to be answered will help find solutions.

Beth Gingold (India)

Through my year-long volunteer position with the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (JCCD), I learned a great deal about the challenges of public service delivery, including water and sanitation. JCCD is an NGO in Bangalore, India that works with citizens and the government to improve urban quality of life by improving urban governance.

I worked primarily with Yuva Janaagraha, the youth outreach program. I designed and taught an action-based qualitative research methods course at a local college, getting students out of the classroom and on-the-ground to learn about civic issues. At the same time, just by experiencing life day-by-day I was learning some things “on-the-ground” about civic issues like water and sanitation myself.

In India, water supply and sanitation are services that are to be provided (theoretically!—according to the Constitution) by the local government. As a “rich” foreigner (and yes, pretty much ALL foreigners are rich, comparatively) I was spared any real hardship—but I was still not immune to the problems of poor delivery of public services. I rented a room in an old woman’s house in a neighborhood with an attached bath and a kitchen with a corporation water connection. On a daily basis I only suffered the minor inconvenience of having to boil the water before drinking it. Some days were more inconvenient than others, like when the water supply arbitrarily cut off for hours at a time—a problem that was far worse in the half of the neighborhood that was uphill.

In the past year I have developed a deep appreciation for clean, functional toilets, especially in public places. Living in Bangalore I quickly learned not to take such precious “commode-ities” for granted! I was privileged with to have a private flush toilet at home and at the office so my clean-toilet searches were generally optional. Many in Bangalore—and in much of urban India—are not nearly so lucky.

While JCCD does not work directly on water and sanitation projects, it does work to improve the accountability of the government in providing these services. One such project is JCCD’s Ward Infrastructure Services Assessment (WISA)—a pilot program designed to provide the government and citizens with a tool with which to assess the services provided by local government.

My friend and fellow volunteer Sazana Jayadeva was in charge of piloting a survey to inventory public toilets. Her experience, as she reported and shared in the Janaagraha Times demonstrates the dismal public toilet situation in Bangalore:

“The experience was alternately enlightening, funny and sobering. Often, when I would ask shopkeepers for directions to a particular toilet, they would shake their heads vehemently and warn me of the vile state of the toilet that I, in my innocence, was so keen to use. Very often, they would go on to recommend a superior alternative”

“Some of these people noticing me looking at the neighbourhood toilet, and mistaking me for a government official, complained to me about how it often got flooded and was badly in need of repair. For these people the lack of a good public toilet was a situation that they had had to live with for so long that they were now resigned to it. They had complained to me more in the way of conversation, not because they hoped that I could or would do anything to help them.”

Meeting Bangalore’s water and sanitation problems are a daunting challenge, requiring massive political will to solve. Right now these problems are not being adequately addressed—for reasons ranging from corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency to tight budgets and limited human resources. Hopefully programs like WISA will help quantify the problem and help citizens hold the government politically accountable for service delivery.

In the meantime, I hope that organizations such as the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative will continue to raise awareness about the urgency and reality of water and sanitation problems worldwide.

Link to public toilet photos:

Hideyuki Hiruma (Kenya)

For my Capstone research, I went to Kenya for ten days in February, 2007. One of the most impressive sights was Kibera, which is the largest slum in Africa. It is located outskirt of Nairobi and has over a million people. Kibera lacks basic urban services, such as water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, power, and roads. Many water pipes are broken with leakages, and pathogens and other pollutants can also get in, which deteriorates water quality and causes waterborne diseases. (See the picture attached.)

Several lessons could be learned from examining this slum. In areas where water conditions are severe, water policies or laws are often not practiced even though they have good laws and policies. Thus, efficient investments from international organizations or donor countries are necessary. They should have continuous discussion with local people what kind of technology or water systems would fit the local conditions the most.

Through the experience at Kenya, I was determined to make positive contribution to improving water and sanitation condition of developing countries. To deepen my understanding further and strengthen my expertise, I decided to pursue PhD degree at the University of Iowa. In a class, I conducted research on conflicts over the scarce water resources in the Nile Basin. I learned that water stress could be a major cause of going war for many countries in the Basin.

Picture of Kibera taken by Hideyuki Hiruma in February, 2007

Arushi Sharma (Indonesia)

Privatization of water and sanitation programs is an issue I first encountered as a college student in New Delhi, India. I worked with a civil society organization that was on the last legs of a successful campaign to discourage a possible privatization of the Delhi Water Board by the World Bank.  Taking this firsthand experience to the University of Pennsylvania, I joined the Organizations and Environmental Management interschool minor program. In 2006 with a fellow student in a class entitled “Privatization: An International Perspective,” I completed a comparative analysis of one failed and one successful water privatization effort in Manila, Philippines. This study introduced me to the nuances of what private sector involvement looks like on paper and how it unfolds (and unravels) in practice in nations struggling to provide their people with basic services we take for granted in the United States.

My continuing fascination with the topic ed me to an MES class on global water issues taught by Prof. Stanley Laskowski. Under his guidance, I completed a trend assessment and policy recommendation study on private sector participation (PSP) in water management in Jakarta, Indonesia. The study firstly explores the theoretical basis for private sector involvement, which can range from only raising project capital to owning water production assets, undertaking commercial risk for the project, controlling operations and maintenance, or simply taking over the entire financing and operations process from the public entity. Whatever the level of participation, the introduction of the private sector has typically been intended to remediate failing government efforts to provide equitable, affordable, and clean water and sanitation to the public.

Following this theoretical introduction, I examine well-faring privatization projects, such as in Britain and France, others that are struggling like Jakarta’s PSP schemes, and those that have entirely failed as in Argentina and Bolivia. I create a factor framework I then use to assess the past and current performance of the Jakartan PSP water program as it has evolved over the past ten years. These factors included financial health of the contracts, regulatory strength of the local government, consumer behavior, stakeholder involvement, financial and performance target feasibility, quality of human and physical capital, accountability standards, and economic incentives to keep the project sustainable. On all these points, the Jakartan experience has been difficult and complicated, and relatively unsuccessful. One crucial element for poor project performance has been the shaky method of revenue generation- these revenues come entirely from water tariff charges to industry, economic tiers of consumer households, and social institutions, hiked periodically and often to cover losses. Another factor contributing to poor performance is a complete lack of environmental standards and urban planning on the part of the Indonesian government—the result being extra expenditure to provide clean water to existing customers or expand connections into underserved areas.

The final component of the assessment was to make recommendations that could improve the state of the water management program in Jakarta. I firstly create a differentiated pricing model that by cross-subsidizing different water fees and unit charges among economic user bands could result in affordable and profitable water prices. Secondly, I suggest distinct environmental regulatory programs to control urban and residential water quality and propose the existence of a vicious circle pattern that must be broken for either program to work.  And thirdly, I encourage the parent companies and the Indonesian government looks to microfinance funding and local stakeholder involvement as solutions to mitigate mounting debt for the projects.

While Indonesia as a whole has made progress on Millennium Development Goals such as poverty and gender equality, large cities such as Jakarta are not likely to meet projected user needs for Target 10 of Goal 7 by 2015; the water privatization efforts are likely to fail by 2030 under current circumstances. Improved coverage in Jakarta in areas not connected to the private networks is forestalled by technical and managerial inadequacies in government operations, as well as by the limited water budget allocated by the central government. The lack of indigenous agency data on water management routines and performance observed in data collection for this case study also shows that the water sector is still not a development priority for the Indonesian government.  As of 2008, facing heavy losses and shortfalls on performance targets, both original parent companies have sold 95% of their shareholding in the water sector projects to other private companies. This provides the perfect impetus to undertake project refinancing and introduce integrated water management technology in the city.

The question in Jakarta is not so much of who manages the water utilities but how these utilities are managed. In every sense of the word, Jakarta is at “square one” in terms of addressing its water problems. The private sector and the Jakartan government must make a concurrent attempt to address issues of water contamination, consumer ability to pay for piped water, income thresholds, alternate water source control, and diversification of contract risks. The profitability of PSP rests on the new shareholder companies’ ability to recover lump sum investments in the long run and make good progress on financial and performance targets in the short run—both are things that the previous owner companies could not do. Further, the government must realize more responsibility towards its citizens in terms of creating environmental regulations. And finally, both private and public sector parties should recognize that their actions and motivations are constrained by debt. For this reason, water pricing remains central to a successful distribution strategy in the city.

The Jakartan experience supports the case that there is no blanket solution for managing water and sanitation processes around the world. As a member of the PGWI community, I hope to present my current and future water privatization research as a model to learn from the past and think innovatively about the private sector and freshwater supply.

Kate McArdle (Cameroon)

As a student at Penn, I was part of the Penn EWB implementation team for their first project, in Honduras; I also helped plan and develop the Cameroon water project. Those experiences led me to apply to Peace Corps, and I am currently serving as a water and sanitation volunteer in Mali. Here, my main project has been to improve my village’s sole well. We have dug it 4 meters deeper to prevent it from going dry in the hot season, and the remainder of the project is to improve its sanitation. We will install a well door on top, install a pulley system for drawing water, construct a headwall, lay a concrete apron around the well, and build a fence around the well area. One of the most important things I have learned from this project regards project planning and management: namely, to be prepared for everything to go wrong and cause delays. One way to be prepared for this is to use locally available materials and equipment. For example, on the very first day of work, we found out that our rented compressor – a key component of the project’s technology – did not work.

We literally could not begin work without the use of this machine, and not only were we paying a hefty sum for each day of rental, we were also racing against the upcoming rainy season, which would halt all of our work for an entire year with its arrival. When we discovered it was broken, it was unfortunate that no one in the village itself could repair it; however, it was good that the person who could fix it was only 30 km and could come out the next day. Later in the project, we discovered that we had not planned or budgeted for enough expendable materials, which also were more expensive than originally budgeted. Although thorough planning of the budget and schedule is necessary, it’s also important to give as much flexibility as is reasonable, knowing that problems will come up and you will need time and resources to solve them. Finally, I learned to let the villagers you are working with take as much control of the project as possible. Not only is it good for them to get used to leading the project, as this will help ensure its stability, but they also will often come up with good solutions that you will not think of. Even after a full year of my best attempts at integrating into my village, the people who have lived here their whole lives know much better than I do where to get things, who to talk to, and how to solve the type of problems that arise, since these are things they have been dealing with their whole lives.

One thing I have learned by comparing my experiences with the Honduras, Cameroon, and Mali projects is how important it is for the project to be truly initiated by the project, for the community to be motivated to get the project done, and for them to feel ownership of the project. In Honduras, we had the good fortune of working with a very motivated community in combination with a hard-working, responsible NGO. With the Cameroon project, we worked with a very motivated community leader. However, we did all of the initial project planning without visiting the village, so we weren’t able to gauge their commitment from the start. In Mali, I have learned that I was brought to the village as a result of a few motivated individuals, rather than a motivated community.

While the community definitely sees the need for improved water sources and talks a lot about fixing this problem, they are not as motivated to do the actual work or making the sacrifices required to solve it themselves. I don’t see this as something inherent to the population’s demeanor, but rather as the result of many previous organizations coming to the area and organizing large-scale projects where everything is simply given to the benefiting village. Thus with my project, the villagers are reluctant to pay a small contribution and really take ownership of the project since they have not had to do this in the past. With such an attitude, not only is it much harder to get the project done – our project is now delayed 4 months because we are waiting on the villagers’ contributions – but the project will be less sustainable in the end. Thus, it is important to really assess whether or not a prospective community is truly committed through the end. During the project, if commitment does start to dwindle, it is helpful to seek out those who are motivated, and – most importantly – do not budge on whatever contribution the community had promised from the beginning.