The United Nations has set an ambitious development agenda. The UN's Millennium Development Goals include a water and sanitation target, which calls for halving the number of people without access to fresh water and basic sanitation by 2015. Achieving this target would require granting 1.2 billion people access to fresh water and 1.5 billion to basic sanitation facilities, and the cost would be tens of billions of dollars.

The numbers and costs are daunting, but the cost of doing nothing is staggering. The World Health Organization recently released a report titled "Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level."

This analysis shows that a one dollar investment in fresh water supply and sanitation would give an economic return between three and four dollars depending on the region. These returns could positively impact national and local governments, the health sector, and industry, with employees taking fewer sick days and paying lower health-care costs.

In addition, investment in the provision of water and sanitation means benefits for health, education, and individual economic opportunities. Health benefits include a 10 percent reduction in diarrhea diseases, which kill an estimated three million people every year, 85 percent of them children. In some developing countries, women and children must travel significant distances to collect water for basic needs such as cooking, bathing, and drinking. The opportunity costs mean fewer hours spent in school or pursuing economic opportunities.

Other key components include investment in infrastructure and hygiene education. To date, large-scale infrastructure projects have received the most resources from the donor community. Though important, large-scale projects must be accompanied by small-scale solutions that could address community water and sanitation needs in smaller cities, towns, and villages through point-of-use systems, alternative technologies, and indigenous water management techniques.

At the Wilson Center, the Environmental Change and Security Project's Navigating Peace Initiative is working to bridge the research gap in this area. The Initiative is commissioning research to synthesize best practices from bilateral, multilateral, and NGO work on small-scale community-based solutions in the water and sanitation arena. These efforts will feed into broader UN-led initiatives to disseminate lessons learned among the practitioner community.