On a Saturday in December, in a ceremony punctuated by singing, dancing and a rain shower, the South African village of Ramotshinyadi formally assumed ownership of a new network that provides clean water for its nearly 10,000 residents.

"Now that we have water, my dream will be to see our children being committed to their studies … without being disturbed by elders sending them to riverbanks to fetch water," said Hannah Kobela, a local who has family living in Ramotshinyadi. On Dec. 8, the community officially took over the water system from The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation and USAID, which co-led the project as part of a unique partnership.

Kabelo Letsoalo

At least 340 million people in Africa — about one-third of the population — lack access to safe drinking water. In 2000, the United Nations and other organizations created Millennium Development Goals for water, sanitation and other vital concerns, aiming for improvements by 2015. But five years in, it was clear that "at the rate things were going, Africa was going backward," says William Asiko, president of The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation. Unless changes were made, he says, "Africans would be worse off by 2015 than they were when the Millennium Development Goals were set."

A Public-Private Partnership for Water Access

When it comes to water access, South Africans face a constellation of problems, starting with climate. The country's rainfall levels tend to be relatively low and erratic, with frequent droughts and floods. Other factors affecting water supply (in South Africa and elsewhere) include poor resource management, inadequate infrastructure, inefficient use, robust population growth, natural disasters and governance problems.

The resulting water scarcity presents an even more daunting list of problems, including dehydration, disease, interrupted educations and gender inequality.

The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation has committed, through its $30 million Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), to provide clean drinking water to more than 2 million people in Africa by 2015. The initiative supports 42 water projects in 27 countries. Some of these projects are co-funded by USAID through its Water and Development Alliance (WADA) program.

Why partner on these issues? Asiko explains that USAID was "very good at doing infrastructure projects. They could build a dam, they could dig the boreholes ... they could do a lot of those things. They needed a partner who could help them with more of the software stuff: making community connections, connecting with governments."

For Thobekile Finger, a South Africa project specialist at USAID, the partnership with Coca-Cola "was an opportunity to leverage the resources we have so we can both make a far bigger impact than we would if we were working individually."

In Ramotshinyadi, Coca-Cola and USAID marshaled local partners, including power company Eskom, which supplied the electrical connection necessary to pump water from three new boreholes provided to the municipality.

More Than Drinking Water

The lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation affects everyone, but women and children generally feel the greatest impact.

Woman drawing water

"In many cultures around the world, and Africa is certainly one of them, it is the role of the female members of society to ensure the family is fed and that there is sufficient water for the family to use," Asiko explains. "So women bear the brunt of this water scarcity. They are the ones on the front line of these problems."

On trips to collect water, women are often drawing from the same sources that domestic and wild animals rely on. "We were competing for water with the crocodiles," says Peggy Masetla, Ramotshinyadi's ward councilor.

Women traveling long distances, sometimes at night, have also become rape targets as a result, says Thobekile Finger of USAID. "If they are going to fetch water in some of these areas, women have to go as a group for their own safety."

"Sometimes when it rains, it is also not safe for children to go fetch water in the river because they end up drowning," says Kobela. Children are forced to cut study hours short to go fetch water, and schools cannot stay open for a full day when there are no toilets or drinking water.

The Need for Ownership

The journey to water independence for Ramotshinyadi, to date, has been successful but far from smooth. "Ramotshinyadi is a very good example of how difficult it is to put together a successful water project," Asiko says.

Case in point: During the implementation, vandals destroyed the electrical systems donated by Eskom for pumping water. It took time to fix not just the infrastructure, but to instill a sense of ownership in the Ramotshinyadi community. "That has been very successful," Asiko says. "I think the community today understands this project belongs to them — they are responsible for the infrastructure, they are responsible for its security."

Asiko also mentioned another Coca-Cola project in Swaziland involving 30 boreholes that had phone numbers posted so people could call if there were problems. The implementing team didn't realize, however, that many people either did not have cell phones or did not have adequate credit on their phones to make a call, so problems went unattended.

"These are the kinds of problems that arise that we couldn't foresee," Asiko says. Now the project has a "circuit rider" to check on all of the boreholes at regular intervals.

Such lessons have helped the initiative partners on RAIN projects ensure that each community feels that it has a stake in the project's success and is equipped to realize that success. Projects such as Ramotshinyadi also incorporate training for community members in areas such as efficient water use, hygiene and system maintenance.

The ceremony in Ramotshinyadi was important symbolically, says Moshake Molokoane, a tribal council leader: "This handover program, it's important to bring awareness to the community that it is their project and they are to benefit too."