Interview with Marla-Smith Nilsson, Executive Director of Water 1st
Marla Smith-Nilsson, the Executive Director of Water 1st, is a down-to-earth, no-frills sort of person. When we met in her office in downtown Seattle, she put me at ease immediately—we are both moms living in the same Seattle neighborhood and easily found a jumping off point in our conversation.
Eventually we got around to talking about her work with Water 1st.
She came right to the point.
“It is wrong to spend a day collecting water. Access to water is a basic human right,” she said.
Marla has seen first-hand the difficulties in accessing clean water. As a child living in Arizona, she and her parents would vacation in nearby Mexico. She saw women and girls walking and carrying water back to their homes and felt humbled by how this was happening only a few hours away from where she lived. These observations had a powerful influence on her life path.
Marla became fascinated with building water systems and became an engineer, starting WaterPartners (now water.org) while she was in graduate school in North Carolina. She left WaterPartners, feeling dissatisfied with its expansion and changing goals, and started Water 1st, only 6 years ago.
Water 1st attempts to address the fundamental issues of poverty, childhood death, and gender equality by focusing on three things:
- Provide safe water, toilets, and public health education (handwashing)
- Make water supplies, such as faucets, convenient to the people who use them
- Create a sustainable community-based partnership by investing in local organizations and providing diligent follow-up and evaluation
These goals are accomplished with three important values in mind: community commitment, involving women, and consistent project monitoring and follow-up.
This is how Water 1st is unique and successful— building and strengthening relationships results in the long-term sustainability of the project.
For example, a community in which Water 1st has a presence forms a Water Council, which provides the momentum and support needed for the project. With this buy-in from community members and a commitment to see the project through to its completion, there is a greater chance of success.
Too often, water projects fail because the funding has been withdrawn too soon. Water 1st funds their partner organizations year after year because, as Marla explained, the communities learn more from the successes and the projects get better and better as the years pass.
“When other communities see these successes they will want to replicate them,” she said.
Working with the same partner organization in the localized area of the country instead of working with several different organizations in different regions, guarantees a better success rate. The partner organization gets well-known throughout the region and presents itself with a solid reputation. This is important because often corruption is rife and many projects fail due to short-lived commitment.
Here’s a great success story: In Ethiopia, the government is more likely to contribute money for education to communities that have access to water.
“If there is water, it is easier to retain teachers, school enrollment would be better, and kids would be healthier,” explained Marla. And these are all good incentives for receiving money to build schools.
Water 1st helped one such Ethiopian community build a water system and once water was flowing, the government contributed funds to build a school. Where previously there were no children getting an education in that community, now 95% of the children in that community attend school.
Water 1st is also extremely successful in fundraising efforts. More to come in another blog posting….