The GiveWell Blog

Answering some questions about water quality programs

On June 22, we held a virtual event on research into water quality interventions, featuring presentations from Michael Kremer of the University of Chicago’s Development Innovation Lab; Brett Sedgewick from Evidence Action, the parent organization of Dispensers for Safe Water; and Stephan Guyenet, Elie Hassenfeld, and Catherine Hollander of GiveWell. (If you weren’t able to attend, we’ve published a video recording, audio recording, and transcript here.)

We hosted the event to provide some additional background for our recommendation of up to $64.7 million to Dispensers for Safe Water, which installs chlorine dispensers to treat water at rural collection sites in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda. This grant was the result of a lengthy investigation and a significant update in our views on the cost-effectiveness of water treatment, which we’ve written about here.

Several attendees wrote in with a range of thoughtful questions—about our analysis of the effects of chlorination interventions, about the particulars of Dispensers for Safe Water’s program, or more generally about our work. We covered as many as we could during the event and followed up on others by email. Below, we’re sharing a selection of the questions we responded to in writing, along with other questions we’ve gotten about this work outside of the event, in the hope that they’ll be of interest to a broader audience. Questions and answers have been anonymized; some have been edited slightly for brevity, or to fill in important context that was missing.

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A major update in our assessment of water quality interventions

As we continue to grow, GiveWell seeks to maximize both the cost-effectiveness of the funding we direct and the likely room for more funding of the programs we support. We think we’ve identified a category of interventions that rates really well on both: water treatment, such as chlorination.

This is a major update for us. Before 2020, based on the available evidence, we didn’t believe that water quality interventions had a large enough effect on mortality to make them a competitive target for funding. We’ve since seen new evidence that has led us to significantly increase our estimate of the mortality reduction in young children that’s attributable to these interventions: a 14% reduction in mortality from any cause, up from around 3%.

Though we have remaining uncertainties about these numbers, we’ve substantially updated our view of the promisingness of water treatment. Where we previously found that Evidence Action’s Dispensers for Safe Water program was about as cost-effective as unconditional cash transfers, we now believe it’s about four to eight times as cost-effective, depending on the location. That was a primary factor in our decision to recommend a grant of up to $64.7 million to Dispensers for Safe Water in January 2022.

We’re sharing this news in brief form before we’ve published a grant page, because we’re excited about the potential of this grant and what it represents. It’s an area of work we haven’t supported to a significant degree in the past, but one that we now think could absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for cost-effective programming.

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