SWWW Shows Increasing Interest in Systems Approaches and Sustainable WASH Services

Representing USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems (SWS) Initiative at the Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) annual conference last month provided us with an opportunity to see how our SWS Initiative fits among the development sector and where our best opportunities are for making an impact. It was very exciting to get the pulse of the sector in the areas of systems approaches to create sustainable service delivery and lasting impact.

While our project is approaching the end of its first year, we had the opportunity to hear from partners in the Agenda for Change and their progress in taking a systemwide approach to tackle policy, financing, and institutions, and learn of a few new initiatives just getting launched that will look to us as they also focus on a systems approach to understanding pathways to sustainability. These included the new Wateraid Sustainable WASH program and the Hilton Foundation partnership with Stanford University to develop performance monitoring and learning to support Hilton’s new strategy on Safe and Sustainable Rural Water Supply programs. This work is clearly at a cutting edge, and we look forward to sharing our evidence and learnings next year at Stockholm.

A common theme that emerged during this global conference was that achieving the WASH Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be successful if governments and their development partners, including the private sector, stop doing “business as usual” and instead think and work in a multi-stakeholder systems approach and focus on sustainable WASH service delivery rather than solely on the construction of new WASH infrastructure. This was brought home to participants initially by the launch of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) 2017 report, which presented the baseline data for the SDGs in a well-attended session.

The SDG WASH goals call for higher levels of sustained service delivery (new ladder levels of safely managed sanitation and safely managed water supply). The JMP report data showed that most countries’ levels —even more developed ones—of “safely managed” water and sanitation were quite low and that a high percentage of existing water and sanitation infrastructure was no longer functional or providing sustained services. While this does not bode well for universally achieving the goals of the SDGs, we now have evidence of the starting point and can better gauge the effort needed to make the required progress. Sustainable and safely managed sanitation in small  towns – including sustainable shared latrine facilities in urban slums and city wide inclusive fecal sludge management services is one of the WASH subsectors that the USAID SWS initiative will be focusing on in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Various sessions during the SWWW conference addressed these themes—both flagging the challenge but also introducing new and promising approaches. Some of these approaches are being piloted in the SWS initiative where we will apply diagnostic tools specific to urban sanitation and help address challenges such as safe sludge disposal and efficient management of fecal sludge services.  Relatedly, the World Bank (WB) launched a major new knowledge product called “the WASH Poverty Diagnostic” (http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water/publication/wash-poverty-diagnostic ) that at its core said that reaching the poor required good data on poverty, access, sustainability of WASH services, health and nutrition, and a multiple stakeholder systems and governance approach. During the launch event the Senior Director for WB Global Water Practice Guangzhe Chen noted that this study and approach signaled that the WB was doing things very differently from the past. Another emerging new approach discussed at multiple sessions described the new Call to Action for City Wide Inclusive Sanitation as a broad principle. Specific approaches, such as addressing the challenge of safely managed and sustainable sanitation through the use of container-based sanitation services—where human excreta is collected in sealable, removable containers that are transported to treatment facilities and reused as either fertilizer or energy sources—were highlighted. This fit in with the overall conference theme of reuse and resource recovery from waste.

Another relevant session presented a range of rural water supply sustainability indicators and discussed the need for a common indicator globally; a theme we are working on within SWS. The interest around systems approaches was palpable, and the Stockholm conference was a good opportunity to build a community of practice of initiatives to test different platforms using a systems approach to attain more sustainable services.

By Karl Linden, Principal Investigator, USAID Sustainable WASH Systems initiative, and Eddy Perez, chief of party, USAID Sustainable WASH Systems Initiative, University of Colorado Boulder, Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities


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