John Butler has more than 40 years of experience in water and natural resource management. He is a senior technical advisor in Tetra Tech’s international development practice, focusing on water supply, sanitation, and water infrastructure improvements in Africa.

Mr. Butler began his career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. He moved into international development to learn about the problems facing people living in poverty around the globe, and says that he still learns something every day. He has worked in more than 30 countries, including nine countries in Africa. Currently Mr. Butler works on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project to promote and support sustainable solutions to the most critical water and sanitation problems in Africa, under which more than 35,000 people have gained access to new or improved water services.

Mr. Butler received a bachelor’s degree in Physics from the University of Missouri and a Master of Philosophy in Economics from George Washington University.

What are the challenges of implementing sustainable, safe drinking water supplies in Africa?

The challenges are daunting—dysfunctional infrastructure, poverty, and lack of access to information about the importance of clean water and hygiene are just some of the issues that people face every day. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, people spend hours each day collecting water for their families from sources far from their homes. This burden is primarily borne by women.

These problems have both infrastructure and institutional dimensions. Clearly, inadequate water infrastructure and funding to meet the enormous capital needs are major challenges. The World Bank estimates that $9 to 30 million per year is needed for water supply investments in the developing world.

SUWASA Staff assisting Nakuru resident

But often, the greatest obstacles to creating safe drinking water systems in Africa are institutional—the capacity of water utilities to effectively run the utility and keep it sustainable in the future. I have focused on implementing sound governance, policies, institutions, and efficient management and operating procedures. In far too many instances water systems were installed with little thought to local capabilities to maintain the systems. Proper staffing and training, effective financial management systems, and sound policies that balance private and public sector involvement are just as critical to sustainability in water services as constructing new infrastructure.

What is the most interesting project on which you have worked?

For nearly five years, I’ve been working on an Africa-wide USAID-funded project implemented by Tetra Tech called Sustainable Water and Sanitation in Africa (SUWASA). Our number one priority is to provide access to clean water and sanitation to those who need it the most and to keep it going over the long term.

Every project is forward looking—we’re developing and implementing water delivery solutions that are sustainable for the future using practical, yet innovative technologies and strategies. Tetra Tech is now working in nine countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, implementing 17 reform projects under SUWASA. Each project brings a unique set of opportunities and challenges for service improvements—from assisting Kenyan utilities and commercial financial institutions to finance infrastructure improvements to helping Nigerian water ministries and utilities improve water sector policies and utility operations to expand and improve access and service quality.

What are some examples of innovative solutions Tetra Tech has used to deliver safe drinking water in Africa?

Enumerators interview household members

For many SUWASA projects, I reach out to experts across Tetra Tech to identify the most innovative technical approaches. For example, we helped the Government of Mozambique identify gaps in water service in the capital city of Maputo that were being filled by hundreds of small-scale, private operators selling water from largely unregulated wells. Tetra Tech designed and conducted a survey using our innovative electronic Project Observation, Reporting, and Tracking (ePORT) tool. Local staff conducted the surveys on iPads. Using ePORT, we developed web-accessible inventory maps that were instrumental in creating a participatory strategy to expand safe water services across the city. This project won Tetra Tech’s 2013 technology innovation award.

In Nakuru, Kenya, families in the poorest communities spent hours each day filling buckets of water from vendors who often charged them excessive fees. To remedy this problem, SUWASA installed prepaid water meters. Now community members insert a flash drive into a public meter to get a specified volume of clean water at a reasonable cost. This technology is working so well that the Kenyan government may expand it to other poor communities across the country.

What are the prospects for real improvement in supplying safe and affordable water in the developing world?

While more than 700 million people lack access to improved drinking water sources, the World Health Organization reports that more than two billion people have gained access since 1990. The trend is moving in the right direction.

Looking ahead, I see a tremendous opportunity for improvement that is not dependent on major new capital investment. One of the largest opportunities is reducing costs by increasing service efficiencies. Often African utilities lose 35 to 50 percent of their revenue from water that is produced but not paid for because it is leaking out of the system or because of inadequate metering or outdated financial systems. Energy inefficiencies also hit the bottom line hard, since energy is typically one of the largest operational expenses. And overcoming institutional inefficiencies that result in bloated labor costs presents a major opportunity for improvement.

How is Tetra Tech’s experience in developed countries applicable to the problems facing developing countries?

Tetra Tech’s support for water service providers and government agencies in the United States and other countries directly contributes to this work. In supporting Zambia’s water services regulatory authority, we drew from Tetra Tech’s expertise developing rate structures for U.S. water utilities that reflect the utility’s actual costs while providing ample incentives for improving efficiencies. Our expertise in public-private partnership training and consulting is sought by many African utilities. And our experience designing SCADA systems in North America is needed in countries such as Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya that want more state-of-the-art systems.

With this wide expertise and more than 30 years of experience addressing development challenges in the poorest and most difficult places to work around the globe, we are well positioned to provide developing countries with sustainable approaches to meet their needs for clean, affordable, and reliable water supplies.