M.S. Civil Engineering
2016 Water and Health Conference
I am a second-year Masters student studying Civil Systems in the Engineering for Developing Communities program at CU Boulder. I recently was able to attend the 2016 Water and Health Conference organized by the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, which was a tremendous opportunity to learn about the current research, thinking, and approaches from practitioners and academics in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector.
From my viewpoint, one of the major themes of the conference was the need to move beyond basic service provision towards systems strengthening to encourage long-lasting development. Organizations are beginning to acknowledge this paradigm shift in their programming, as evidenced by USAID’s announcement at the conference for their Sustainable WASH Systems Initiative, of which CU Boulder will be a partnering institution. USAID also announced that they will allow for both direct and indirect attribution of results from their projects, recognizing that they are part of a larger system and their efforts are likely only one of many contributing factors to a project’s success or failure.
If the shift towards systems thinking continues to build momentum in the WASH sector, there certainly will be many challenges that need to be addressed in the coming years. For example, it will not be straightforward to develop meaningful indicators for measuring and reporting the strengthening of local systems. Additionally, it likely will be difficult to convince donors that a long-term investment in this strengthening is valuable, when instead they could use their money to fund interventions that meet short-term needs, can be tangibly measured, and have clear, visible impact. Ultimately, I believe that a clear evidence base will first need to be established in order to demonstrate the importance of these types of long-term investments to bring about lasting change.
One of the more memorable presentations from the conference was delivered by Paul Skayem of World Vision Lebanon. Paul outlined the Bekaa Water Project, which is an effort to provide safe water and hygiene services to Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities primarily through the rehabilitation and extension of water supply networks coupled with water conservation and hygiene promotion activities. More than the specifics of the intervention, what was most memorable was hearing firsthand about the tremendous complexity surrounding the social and religious dynamics of WASH service provision in the refugee camps and surrounding communities in Lebanon, especially in the wake of the Syrian occupation that ended as recently as 2005. This project emphasized the importance of understanding the social context of local systems in order to make sure that a WASH intervention will be appropriate, not exacerbate any tensions that may be present, and, if possible, work towards peace building and improving social cohesion.
While there certainly will be many challenges awaiting us in this new era of the Sustainable Development Goals, I came away from the 2016 Water and Health Conference overwhelmingly optimistic that the WASH sector will be able to attack them head on by working together in collaboration, disseminating best practices, and learning from our collective successes and failures.