Why Water Matters:

An Interview With The Founder of Water1st

BY DAVID BOLLER | FEB, 28 2019

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Marla Smith-Nilson, the Founder and Executive Director of Water1st International. Over the last 13 years, the organization has provided clean water and sanitation systems to 212,609 people in 2,874 impoverished communities around the world.

She was born and raised in the small town of Benson in southern Arizona. Through family trips to Mexico, Marla learned at an early age the important role water plays in providing health and opportunity. She would go on to earn degrees in both civil and environmental engineering, and would use those skills to eventually found Water1st International.

Water1st International is a world-wide leader in accountability, transparency and long-term project success. They are pushing the industry forward with their revolutionary systems and approach.

In the interview below, we had the opportunity to discuss how the organization began, some of the lessons they have learned, and advice Marla would give to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. 

Marla Smith-Nilson

Click for Bio

A respected leader in the water sector, Marla is a civil engineer who brings 25 years of hands-on field experience with water supply and sanitation projects in developing countries. Prior to founding Water 1st, she was a Co-Founder and Director at WaterPartners International (now water.org). From 1992-2005, Marla oversaw the evaluation and monitoring of all aspects of WaterPartners-supported partner organizations and community water projects in developing countries. In her career, she has overseen the implementation of over 200 community water projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa benefiting 200,000 people.

Marla has remained steadfast to her mission to advocate for and support effective international development—supporting local, long-lasting solutions to the water and sanitation crisis—the first step out of poverty toward transformation. She is an expert in identifying and partnering with on-the-ground implementing organizations and has a unique ability to communicate the world water crisis and the stories of our project beneficiaries and inspire us to take action in effective ways.

Question: My first question is this: what was the inspiration, or the catalyst for you that made you say, “I want to go ahead and start this organization?”

Marla: There were actually a few things. I grew up in a really small town in Arizona. It's a town where you couldn't be anonymous, so everybody knew everybody. We had known each other since kindergarten. So growing up in a community like that, if somebody has a problem, people pitch in and help. A family that we knew whose house burned down, you know, the community helped them build a new one. That was the kind of growing up experience that I had. I think it had a big impact on how I see my role in the world.

The other thing that happened was that my parents took us on a lot of trips to Mexico. We had a Bass Tracker fishing boat, and we would go to this one lake in Mexico every summer. We would camp and fish and water ski. When I was in middle school, I started noticing that there were girls who live nearby who were coming with their mothers to this lake to collect water. This is something that stuck with me, you know? I didn't decide then and there like, “I want to solve that problem”. I just remembered it and never forgot it. It influenced the choices that I made as I started thinking about my career later on.

I think the first step, at least for me, in wanting to help people is really beginning to understand the problem. How big of an issue is this in the world?

Marla: It impacts half of the world's population. It's hard to imagine anything bigger. It's the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world who are experiencing this problem. So it's no wonder that we don't know about it here because it's been so long since anybody that we were ever related to experienced it. For poor people, it's their biggest issue, their biggest priority. It impacts every single aspect of their day. When somebody who doesn't have water in their house gets up in the morning, it's the first thing that they have to figure out. That might mean a walk of several hours, if they live in a rural area.

It's an incredibly time consuming task. It's a stressful task. Just not being able to have confidence that you're going to have enough water for the day. Then on top of that, time is spent going and searching for water or maybe buying water somewhere. Then they don't get enough water, so they don't have water for really important activities like hand washing that prevents disease. The world's poorest people are afflicted by diseases that you, and I never experienced. Things that are all prevented by washing hands.

It sounds like having access to clean water and toilets and those things can completely change someone's life. My understanding is that not having those things can prevent people from pursuing other things, like education or a career. Is that what you've experienced?

Marla: When you're spending your day going in search of water, it's just hard to work into your schedule time for school or employment. A lot of women who we work with are illiterate because they never had an opportunity to go to school. A lot of them described dropping out of school when they were six years old in order to help their moms collect enough water for the family. I've heard water described by the people as a dream come true. They uses phrases like, “It's like God touching the Earth”. It's completely transformational to these communities. It means that girls have the opportunity to go to school, like you said, and their mothers have an opportunity to have paid employment. They can contribute to the household and the economy.

There’s all kinds of things that go along with that, you know, that I think people in this country have experienced. Once women have an opportunity to contribute to the household income, they have more power in the household and maybe a more equal relationship with their spouses, and then the benefits to education are just enormous as well. You have more opportunity for better jobs later on. You may get married later, you may have fewer children, you probably are going to have healthier children if you're educated. So we think that having access to water is pretty foundational to bringing these communities out of poverty.

I would like to give you an opportunity to talk about what Water1st has been able to accomplish thus far. I think I read that you guys haven't had a single project fail yet. I'd love to hear about that.

Marla: We've served 212,000 people now with water, toilets, and hygiene education over the past 13 years. We're pretty excited to have crossed that 200,000 person mark. Those people are served by more than 2,800 different projects, and our projects are built to last. We have not encountered a single project failure. That’s because we're building projects that people really liked. When we started in 2005, that was the idea we had. We thought if we build things that people value, if we follow up on those projects and constantly get better, then we think we're going to have projects that succeed and really beat the odds of our industry by a lot. So luckily, people gave us money back in 2005 when it was just an idea, and we had no proof that we knew what we were doing.

It's worked. Now we have all kinds of data to show that this approach definitely works. That's why I'm really excited that you guys are sharing our story. Projects can succeed. We have water systems that are 13 years old and going strong. 

I've heard it said that it's easy to give, but it's hard to give well. Your organization seems to have a really strong focus on creating a lasting impact, and on following up and maintaining projects and relationships. Could you just talk a little bit about how you guys go about creating longterm partnerships with these communities?

Marla: I know this issue of whether or not water projects succeed or fail has been an issue in our industry for decades. When I was in graduate school in the early nineties, I was reading reports from the US Agency for International Development that were written in the eighties, talking about how 30% to 50% of water projects fail after 2-5 years for different reasons, but mainly because the community just wasn't maintaining them. A part would break on a pump, which is going to happen, that's just routine. Those routine maintenance activities weren't happening and these projects would remain in disrepair. So I knew going into this work that project failures were huge barrier to solving the problem.

I was lucky. I think that my very first experience seeing a water supply system for a poor community was a great example of how it can be done successfully. I actually saw a water project that was over that five year mark and still functioning. Some of the things that were significant to me about that first water system was that it had household connections, so it wasn't a community water point where everybody would go to one place to collect their water. People had water connections at their house. I thought that was pretty interesting because, of course, we all want water in our house. People were extremely satisfied with the system. The other thing that was happening was that every community member was actually paying a monthly bill to a volunteer water committee. So it was like a volunteer water utility had been set up, and the people were paying their monthly bill to this water utility. So I knew that it could be done well, and I thought the first step in doing a project that was going to last was building something that people liked.

I think that's really a value of ours that we've now taken forward 25 years later. We ask people what they like about their water systems when we do follow up. We want to know what do they like? What do they not like? Because we know that if they like it, they'll take care of it, they'll pay a bill, they'll work with their neighbors to make those repairs. It sounds really simple, but there are a lot of water projects that are not built that way. They're built based on, “Here's how much money we have, so this is all we can build”. It's no wonder those things fail because they're not recognizing what the highest priorities are for community members.

So those things combined with the initial respect for community members, listening to them, listening to their values and then making sure we follow up. I think those are two the things that make us pretty unique, and have ensured that our projects last.

I heard you mentioned that for some of the water projects that people actually will pay a monthly fee to hook into the system. I know in some of your projects, the community will provide labor or even some of the funds. Is the idea that the investment creates a sense of ownership?

Marla: It's a couple of things. One part of it is practical for the long term maintenance costs. We simply can't be funding the ongoing maintenance costs for half of the world's population. Another thing that maybe makes us unique is that when we're building a water system, we're thinking about what are those longterm maintenance costs? So we actually invest more in building systems upfront, invest more in the construction in order to create water systems that don't have a whole lot to maintain.

We're using the same principles that a civil engineer would use here in the United States to build a water system. Even though we're requiring communities pay for that ongoing maintenance, we're making sure that ongoing maintenance costs are as cheap as it they can possibly be. We're working in countries like Mozambique that are, by anyone's measurement, in the bottom 10 countries on the planet in terms of poverty. People there are paying a monthly water bill and they're happy to. That's a way for them to demonstrate that they want to own this. That's pretty important. If they've put their own resources into it, whether through money or labor, it's not a gift anymore. It's theirs.

As an individual, I take pride in the fact that I earn an income that allows me to support my family. I think it's amazing that you are approaching these communities as communities of real people that are similar to us. They want a partnership where they can grow and learn and begin to elevate themselves, rather than just someone coming in and doing things for them.

Marla: I really liked the way you say that. I mean, it sounds so cliche to say that they're just like us, but they are. Really the only difference is they have less money, but they want the same things. Everybody wants to feel valued. I mean, that's just universal, and everybody wants to provide for their children. They want their kids to be healthy and happy, and have an education. So I think because we do approach people with that, and our partners do too.

We're approaching it as being collaborators and partners in this project rather than elevating ourselves and saying that we're in charge. Frankly in this international aid business, it can be pretty easy as the person with the money or the institution with the money to put yourself in that elevated position. I see it a lot, and it doesn't work. I think people on the ground, they know when they're respected, they know when they're being listened to, and they respond to that.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to help people and wants to make a positive impact in their world but maybe doesn't know where to start or feels very small in the face of the world's problems?

Marla: I think it's good to learn as much as you can about the problem that you're trying to solve, especially from the people that are facing it. For us it was, you know, asking people who needed water, what their problems actually were, and what they want a solution to look like for them. I think that's important with any issue to actually talk to people who are experiencing the issue and really listen to them.

The other thing I would say is that, you know, I never went into this thinking I was going to start a nonprofit organization. It really was much, much simpler than that. I would encourage people to not be so worried about having a vision too far in the future. Now I can see a lot further than when we first started Water1st, but it really started because I just thought I just want to fund one project. So I guess baby steps, maybe that's the way to put it. Take baby steps.

My first step was inviting my family and friends to go fund this one project, and I found that that was so much fun that I wanted to do it again. That's how Water1st was born. It didn't start because I said, “Oh, I definitely want to start a nonprofit organization”. I don't think people ever actually say that. I think that they gradually find their way. So just don't be afraid to take that first step and see where it leads you.

Want To Get Involved?

If you would like to know more about how you can get involved and help support the amazing work Water1st International is doing, click the button below!

Why Water Matters:

An Interview With The Founder of Water1st

BY DAVID BOLLER | FEB, 28 2019

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Marla Smith-Nilson, the Founder and Executive Director of Water1st International. Over the last 13 years, the organization has provided clean water and sanitation systems to 212,609 people in 2,874 impoverished communities around the world.

She was born and raised in the small town of Benson in southern Arizona. Through family trips to Mexico, Marla learned at an early age the important role water plays in providing health and opportunity. She would go on to earn degrees in both civil and environmental engineering, and would use those skills to eventually found Water1st International.

Water1st International is a world-wide leader in accountability, transparency and long-term project success. They are pushing the industry forward with their revolutionary systems and approach.

In the interview below, we had the opportunity to discuss how the organization began, some of the lessons they have learned, and advice Marla would give to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. 

Marla Smith-Nilson

Click for Bio

A respected leader in the water sector, Marla is a civil engineer who brings 25 years of hands-on field experience with water supply and sanitation projects in developing countries. Prior to founding Water 1st, she was a Co-Founder and Director at WaterPartners International (now water.org). From 1992-2005, Marla oversaw the evaluation and monitoring of all aspects of WaterPartners-supported partner organizations and community water projects in developing countries. In her career, she has overseen the implementation of over 200 community water projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa benefiting 200,000 people.

Marla has remained steadfast to her mission to advocate for and support effective international development—supporting local, long-lasting solutions to the water and sanitation crisis—the first step out of poverty toward transformation. She is an expert in identifying and partnering with on-the-ground implementing organizations and has a unique ability to communicate the world water crisis and the stories of our project beneficiaries and inspire us to take action in effective ways.

Question: My first question is this: what was the inspiration, or the catalyst for you that made you say, “I want to go ahead and start this organization?”

Marla: There were actually a few things. I grew up in a really small town in Arizona. It's a town where you couldn't be anonymous, so everybody knew everybody. We had known each other since kindergarten. So growing up in a community like that, if somebody has a problem, people pitch in and help. A family that we knew whose house burned down, you know, the community helped them build a new one. That was the kind of growing up experience that I had. I think it had a big impact on how I see my role in the world.

The other thing that happened was that my parents took us on a lot of trips to Mexico. We had a Bass Tracker fishing boat, and we would go to this one lake in Mexico every summer. We would camp and fish and water ski. When I was in middle school, I started noticing that there were girls who live nearby who were coming with their mothers to this lake to collect water. This is something that stuck with me, you know? I didn't decide then and there like, “I want to solve that problem”. I just remembered it and never forgot it. It influenced the choices that I made as I started thinking about my career later on.

I think the first step, at least for me, in wanting to help people is really beginning to understand the problem. How big of an issue is this in the world?

Marla: It impacts half of the world's population. It's hard to imagine anything bigger. It's the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world who are experiencing this problem. So it's no wonder that we don't know about it here because it's been so long since anybody that we were ever related to experienced it. For poor people, it's their biggest issue, their biggest priority. It impacts every single aspect of their day. When somebody who doesn't have water in their house gets up in the morning, it's the first thing that they have to figure out. That might mean a walk of several hours, if they live in a rural area.

It's an incredibly time consuming task. It's a stressful task. Just not being able to have confidence that you're going to have enough water for the day. Then on top of that, time is spent going and searching for water or maybe buying water somewhere. Then they don't get enough water, so they don't have water for really important activities like hand washing that prevents disease. The world's poorest people are afflicted by diseases that you, and I never experienced. Things that are all prevented by washing hands.

It sounds like having access to clean water and toilets and those things can completely change someone's life. My understanding is that not having those things can prevent people from pursuing other things, like education or a career. Is that what you've experienced?

Marla: When you're spending your day going in search of water, it's just hard to work into your schedule time for school or employment. A lot of women who we work with are illiterate because they never had an opportunity to go to school. A lot of them described dropping out of school when they were six years old in order to help their moms collect enough water for the family. I've heard water described by the people as a dream come true. They uses phrases like, “It's like God touching the Earth”. It's completely transformational to these communities. It means that girls have the opportunity to go to school, like you said, and their mothers have an opportunity to have paid employment. They can contribute to the household and the economy.

There’s all kinds of things that go along with that, you know, that I think people in this country have experienced. Once women have an opportunity to contribute to the household income, they have more power in the household and maybe a more equal relationship with their spouses, and then the benefits to education are just enormous as well. You have more opportunity for better jobs later on. You may get married later, you may have fewer children, you probably are going to have healthier children if you're educated. So we think that having access to water is pretty foundational to bringing these communities out of poverty.

I would like to give you an opportunity to talk about what Water1st has been able to accomplish thus far. I think I read that you guys haven't had a single project fail yet. I'd love to hear about that.

Marla: We've served 212,000 people now with water, toilets, and hygiene education over the past 13 years. We're pretty excited to have crossed that 200,000 person mark. Those people are served by more than 2,800 different projects, and our projects are built to last. We have not encountered a single project failure. That’s because we're building projects that people really liked. When we started in 2005, that was the idea we had. We thought if we build things that people value, if we follow up on those projects and constantly get better, then we think we're going to have projects that succeed and really beat the odds of our industry by a lot. So luckily, people gave us money back in 2005 when it was just an idea, and we had no proof that we knew what we were doing.

It's worked. Now we have all kinds of data to show that this approach definitely works. That's why I'm really excited that you guys are sharing our story. Projects can succeed. We have water systems that are 13 years old and going strong. 

I've heard it said that it's easy to give, but it's hard to give well. Your organization seems to have a really strong focus on creating a lasting impact, and on following up and maintaining projects and relationships. Could you just talk a little bit about how you guys go about creating longterm partnerships with these communities?

Marla: I know this issue of whether or not water projects succeed or fail has been an issue in our industry for decades. When I was in graduate school in the early nineties, I was reading reports from the US Agency for International Development that were written in the eighties, talking about how 30% to 50% of water projects fail after 2-5 years for different reasons, but mainly because the community just wasn't maintaining them. A part would break on a pump, which is going to happen, that's just routine. Those routine maintenance activities weren't happening and these projects would remain in disrepair. So I knew going into this work that project failures were huge barrier to solving the problem.

I was lucky. I think that my very first experience seeing a water supply system for a poor community was a great example of how it can be done successfully. I actually saw a water project that was over that five year mark and still functioning. Some of the things that were significant to me about that first water system was that it had household connections, so it wasn't a community water point where everybody would go to one place to collect their water. People had water connections at their house. I thought that was pretty interesting because, of course, we all want water in our house. People were extremely satisfied with the system. The other thing that was happening was that every community member was actually paying a monthly bill to a volunteer water committee. So it was like a volunteer water utility had been set up, and the people were paying their monthly bill to this water utility. So I knew that it could be done well, and I thought the first step in doing a project that was going to last was building something that people liked.

I think that's really a value of ours that we've now taken forward 25 years later. We ask people what they like about their water systems when we do follow up. We want to know what do they like? What do they not like? Because we know that if they like it, they'll take care of it, they'll pay a bill, they'll work with their neighbors to make those repairs. It sounds really simple, but there are a lot of water projects that are not built that way. They're built based on, “Here's how much money we have, so this is all we can build”. It's no wonder those things fail because they're not recognizing what the highest priorities are for community members.

So those things combined with the initial respect for community members, listening to them, listening to their values and then making sure we follow up. I think those are two the things that make us pretty unique, and have ensured that our projects last.

I heard you mentioned that for some of the water projects that people actually will pay a monthly fee to hook into the system. I know in some of your projects, the community will provide labor or even some of the funds. Is the idea that the investment creates a sense of ownership?

Marla: It's a couple of things. One part of it is practical for the long term maintenance costs. We simply can't be funding the ongoing maintenance costs for half of the world's population. Another thing that maybe makes us unique is that when we're building a water system, we're thinking about what are those longterm maintenance costs? So we actually invest more in building systems upfront, invest more in the construction in order to create water systems that don't have a whole lot to maintain.

We're using the same principles that a civil engineer would use here in the United States to build a water system. Even though we're requiring communities pay for that ongoing maintenance, we're making sure that ongoing maintenance costs are as cheap as it they can possibly be. We're working in countries like Mozambique that are, by anyone's measurement, in the bottom 10 countries on the planet in terms of poverty. People there are paying a monthly water bill and they're happy to. That's a way for them to demonstrate that they want to own this. That's pretty important. If they've put their own resources into it, whether through money or labor, it's not a gift anymore. It's theirs.

As an individual, I take pride in the fact that I earn an income that allows me to support my family. I think it's amazing that you are approaching these communities as communities of real people that are similar to us. They want a partnership where they can grow and learn and begin to elevate themselves, rather than just someone coming in and doing things for them.

Marla: I really liked the way you say that. I mean, it sounds so cliche to say that they're just like us, but they are. Really the only difference is they have less money, but they want the same things. Everybody wants to feel valued. I mean, that's just universal, and everybody wants to provide for their children. They want their kids to be healthy and happy, and have an education. So I think because we do approach people with that, and our partners do too.

We're approaching it as being collaborators and partners in this project rather than elevating ourselves and saying that we're in charge. Frankly in this international aid business, it can be pretty easy as the person with the money or the institution with the money to put yourself in that elevated position. I see it a lot, and it doesn't work. I think people on the ground, they know when they're respected, they know when they're being listened to, and they respond to that.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to help people and wants to make a positive impact in their world but maybe doesn't know where to start or feels very small in the face of the world's problems?

Marla: I think it's good to learn as much as you can about the problem that you're trying to solve, especially from the people that are facing it. For us it was, you know, asking people who needed water, what their problems actually were, and what they want a solution to look like for them. I think that's important with any issue to actually talk to people who are experiencing the issue and really listen to them.

The other thing I would say is that, you know, I never went into this thinking I was going to start a nonprofit organization. It really was much, much simpler than that. I would encourage people to not be so worried about having a vision too far in the future. Now I can see a lot further than when we first started Water1st, but it really started because I just thought I just want to fund one project. So I guess baby steps, maybe that's the way to put it. Take baby steps.

My first step was inviting my family and friends to go fund this one project, and I found that that was so much fun that I wanted to do it again. That's how Water1st was born. It didn't start because I said, “Oh, I definitely want to start a nonprofit organization”. I don't think people ever actually say that. I think that they gradually find their way. So just don't be afraid to take that first step and see where it leads you.

Want To Get Involved?

If you would like to know more about how you can get involved and help support the amazing work Water1st International is doing, click the button below!

Comments 0

Leave a comment