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At Water for People, sustainable infrastructure for the developing world

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Water for People CEO Ned Breslin wants to create sustainable ways to provide drinking water and proper sanitation to countries in the developing world.

While the world's most prominent cities work toward high-tech solutions to upgrade aging water infrastructure, who will help the developed world get it in the first place?

Enter Ned Breslin.

The chief executive for non-profit humanitarian organization Water for People, Breslin and his colleagues are working to create sustainable -- quite literally, as in "able to be sustained" -- ways to provide drinking water and proper sanitation to countries in need of it.

Breslin spoke to SmartPlanet from his office in Denver, Colo. about how the right mix of finance mechanisms and partnerships can solve a major problem for communities in far-flung areas of the world.

SmartPlanet: What does Water for People do?

NB: We're basically modeling alternative water and sanitation approaches that leave a lasting change in [developing nations].

We believe there's a lot of wasted investment in the sector. Organizations sell poverty to people -- stories of girls walking miles and miles for water. All of that's true, but those girls tend to walk past broken infrastructure from previous investments. We try to implement it in a way that they never have to walk past those broken, muddy hand pumps again.

What that means is that we get water flowing through various technologies, look at the management of those systems over time, spend an enormous time looking at the financing to keep those systems in place, and we do a lot of work on water quality and quantity.

We're shooting for a situation where boys and girls can go to school and grow up to what they want to be because they can take water for granted.

SmartPlanet: That's an interesting point: you want people in developing nations to feel like they can take water for granted, while the developing world struggles with waste and too many people taking it for granted.

NB: One of the biggest problems around the world is water waste. People turn on water and it leaks and they don't really care because the price is so low. We started a project in Bolivia, simply adding meters. In one district, 82 percent of the families have meters.

When I was there, I walked up and turned the water on -- I tend to do that, to see if it's running -- and the whole family takes a step toward you. "What are you doing [wasting water like that]?"

We've seen a dramatic decline in water wastage. We see much more accurate tariffs for water usage. People would turn it on and fill up every bucket in the house until it runs out for the day. Now they have 24-hour service, and there's a willingness to only use it when it's needed.

This is a very political debate, but the communities we work in have much more appreciation of water and a more accurate value on it than we do in the United States.

SmartPlanet: In the developed world, major cities look to technology companies to implement intelligent infrastructure to conserve water for profit. In the developing world, those same efficiencies are sought after for entirely different reasons. How are these connected?

NB: We're setting it up in a way so that the finances work over time. Some people call that a profit, I call it an infrastructure bank. In the U.S., you can issue bonds and get loans. Those don't exist in most small communities in the developing world.

What binds it altogether is a real understanding across borders that water is under threat. There's no question that you're seeing declines in the quantity and quality of water in the world. We're building managing technologies that can move with changing water availability. In the U.S., it's a lot more high-tech.

The principles that underly successful water provision are universal. The real challenge in the world is going to be as developing countries like India -- where there's pressure [on water resources] from industry, agriculture, tourism -- emerge. That's coming to a head. You're seeing real conflict over the allocation of water resources.

SmartPlanet: It's worth noting that none of this has to do with taking shorter showers or avoiding watering lawns. This is industry you're talking about.

NB: It's not clear that domestic consumption has a lot of power in this discussion.

You look at a couple of companies -- New Belgian Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado -- it takes six barrels of water to make a barrel of beer. They've got it down to three barrels. There's no incentive for them to do that, they're just doing it because they're a progressive organization. There's no commercial initiative.

It's not not washing your car or watering your lawn. The beverage industry is quite interesting because they realize their backs are against the wall. But that's coming from internal, not external, pressure.

And agriculture, forget about it. There's no pressure. Could you imagine if beef was priced based on the cost of water [used to make it]? We would all become vegetarians very quickly.

SmartPlanet: As a philanthropic organization, you talk a lot about awareness and engagement. How do you bridge the gap to action? How do you begin pulling the political, financial, cultural levers to make this happen?

NB: One of the reasons why we won recognition (The 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. -Ed.) from the Skoll Foundation -- if you look at our funding portfolio, it's the Case Foundation, the Gates Foundation, really edgy organizations that think conventional approaches don't work.

People like the work we're doing because from a non-profit point of view, we're starting to show the business case for water conservation. You can do it in a way that things become financially viable and lucrative but avoid forcing people to engage with the system.

Financially, it's a smart investment. There's a lot of work on tariffs and management.

SmartPlanet: And what of changing mentalities? The business case and numbers may make perfect sense, but convincing people it's worth doing is another challenge entirely.

NB: We're working in a world of philanthropy where people want to change things. They're looking for game-changing solutions. We're structuring a package in a way that says look, you can pump in water from 30 points, or you can invest in this way that's better for the long-term.

Instead of telling them a sweet story, we give them monitoring so they can watch it to see if the investment leaves lasting change. And they love it.

In places like Malawi, if water goes off, and a system goes down, they're done. The incentives are right.

SmartPlanet: If it makes business sense, do you really need the socioeconomic narrative of the girl walking to get water? Narratives are powerful, but it seems like you don't need this philanthropic crutch to make progress. Water conservation can make just as much sense in the developing world as the developed one.

NB: It closes the world, doesn't it? You're right -- it makes no difference if you're a woman in Malawi or one in Chicago. We're pushing the edges of this conversation and delivering interesting results in this field and doing it by using philanthropy in a completely different way.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure