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John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates. WASH Advocates is a nonprofit advocacy effort in Washington, DC entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Its mission is to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to solving the problem around the developing world. For more information, visit  

“Forty years ago today, Apollo 16 landed on the moon… By anyone's standards it was a triumph of science, technology, and political will. I remember so many of us thinking that if humankind can do this, what could humankind NOT accomplish?” UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake continued on April 20 at the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting in Washington, DC: “… and yet today, over 1.1 billion people still practice open defecation because they don't have access to the most basic sanitation facilities… If two generations ago we could land men on the moon, we can and must also afford people here on earth two of their most basic human rights — safe water and basic sanitation — because until we do, development progress will falter."

On April 19-20, 2012 in Washington, DC dozens of finance ministers and water ministers from throughout the developing world gathered to make stronger commitments to solving the WASH challenge in their respective countries. They were joined at the meeting by development cooperation ministers from donor countries, including the USAID Administrator Raj Shah. During the event, Administrator Shah made history by announcing that the U.S. government has joined this global partnership aimed at universal coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation.  

Why does this fundamental global safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenge continue to exist today? The most intriguing answer is when people respond: “The problem is not solved because of a lack of political will.” Once that statement is made, no matter how accurate it is, the conversation typically dies, because most people look at politicians as part of the problem, not part of the solution, and strong political will often proves elusive. 

This is why I consider the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting arguably the most important meeting of 2012: political will is what we saw in Washington, DC on April 19-20. And it is political will that leads to sustainable WASH programs implemented at scale community by community, country by country.

The WASH grantmaking community, both foundations and corporate leaders, can take away a few lessons from the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Partnership and its April meeting:

  • Strengthening the evidence base of success is important. The Sanitation and Water for All process isn’t simply for finance ministers and other high-level political leaders to dialogue. The SWA Partnership focuses on strengthening the evidence base of success in the global WASH sector, and using that evidence base to strengthen political will. Political leaders country by country need to hear about WASH from their people. Those political leaders also need to understand how they can help solve the challenges. The SWA process facilitates both, and donors looking for ”exit strategies” need to think more consciously about what it takes to inspire a government at any level to scale up your work. The exit strategy for the most successful WASH programming is “Get the job done,” and universal coverage of WASH requires the highest levels of political support.
  • Better alignment is key. Too often, donor efforts are not aligned with governments, NGOs, or other donors; this can lead to unsustainable, inappropriate, and/or duplicative programming. Members of the SWA include bilaterals (e.g. U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Japan, Australia), dozens of developing countries, multilaterals like the African Development Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many have joined the SWA in part to make sure their assistance is better aligned both with the need and with the actual plans and progress that developing countries are making. SWA partners also aim to make sure their assistance is better coordinated with each other's plans as donors as well. An example of this approach is the support that the Gates Foundation provides to the Water and Sanitation Program, a private partnership administered by the World Bank.
  • Linkages between economic growth and WASH need to be better quantified and communicated. What gets the attention of finance ministers? Arguably, it is not the morbidity and mortality associated with unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, but rather the increased productivity that safe, affordable, and sustainable water and sanitation offer an economy. The World Health Organization estimates that each dollar invested in WASH returns on average eight dollars in increased economic productivity and decreased health care costs. But how many of us know that inadequate sanitation cost India the equivalent of 6.4% of its GDP in 2008? Or that it cost Bangladesh 6.3% of its GDP in 2007? How many of us incorporate this and other cross-sectoral linkages into both our programs and our communications efforts as effectively as we could? 

Beyond the SWA Partnership, many other ongoing efforts illustrate these same points and deserve a closer look: strengthening community water board associations in Latin America; building the capacity of national and sub-national civil society WASH networks in Africa; donors and nonprofits partnering early and directly with mayors in developing countries instead of just inviting them to ribbon-cutting ceremonies; and bringing creative and leveraged business and financial approaches into the water and sanitation sector. 

Clearly donors (in Europe, the United States, and beyond) need to continue direct funding of safe drinking water and sanitation programs around the world. However, government and private donors also need to increase their financial and technical support for initiatives that strengthen the capacity of developing countries to solve the water and sanitation challenges themselves. 

If, as Tony Lake says, we can send a man to the moon forty years ago, we as a planet can certainly solve our water challenges today. The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership illustrates some of the lessons and approaches that will make the private and corporate philanthropic communities an even more important part of the solution. 

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new “5 Questions for…” series, where we pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector. In this post, Water For People’s CEO, Ned Breslin, discusses FLOW, tariff systems, sensors, and more in response to our questions.   

If you are interested in participating in this series, send us an e-mail at:

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

That, as a sector, if we continue to muddle through with small-scale projects, and with programs that have no chance of scale or replication, and if we continue complaining about a lack of finance and poor political will, we won’t solve the water and sanitation crisis. We need to have the courage of a comprehensive polio eradication-type campaign and movement. We are ready to make a bolder move. All investments in water and sanitation need to last, because we can no longer accept girls walking back to polluted water sources past broken handpumps and taps. It’s time we begin to think seriously about creative financial models to replace water and sanitation facilities over time. As a sector, we need to lead the world in issues of transparency with longer-term monitoring that helps us understand what works and why. We are ready for this leap, we just need to take it.   

2. Tell us about a collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

I am extremely excited about our new partnership with Akvo on the future development of FLOW. As many know, Water For People developed FLOW as a way to meet our commitment to 10 years post-implementation monitoring. FLOW is great but we were overwhelmed by the demand for FLOW by other agencies. So we decided Akvo will take this process forward. Through the process of creating a partnership, the thing I learned the most is that alignment around values, organizational culture, and vision is vital to a partnership moving forward. Challenges will emerge but we can always move forward if aligned with a bigger vision in mind.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

We focus on payment and tariffs. The days of sweat equity alone being sufficient for ownership are gone, thankfully. The challenge is to develop tariff systems that finance operations and maintenance (O&M), and also contribute in part to the eventual replacement of these systems over time while ensuring that all have access to water regardless of economic capacity. But someone has to pay, and ownership and sustainability will be elusive unless we embrace the fact that payment matters. We can debate who pays all we want, but someone has to pay — someone actually has to own that responsibility. Water For People works very hard at this issue. It’s not easy but it’s vital to all real discussions on ownership and sustainability.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

I love the potential of sensors in the water and sanitation sector. The ability to truly understand issues related to consumption patterns and, most importantly, functionality will be a big game changer. If sensors tell us when water systems are down, when they are repaired, and what is happening with water resources, we will be in a much stronger position to understand and respond to sustainability challenges. The one group I am watching now is SWEETLab — really good work there!

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The one resource I am inspired by is A Child's Right program called “Proving It” (discussed in detail in this WASHfunders post). It’s early stages but it is a really nice attempt to track actual users over time. The web page will show you what is working and highlight when a system is down (leading to a reduction in the number of beneficiaries). This is a big step and should be supported when talking about aid transparency and all. 

We are launching something called “Re-Imagining Reporting” in August at Stockholm Water Week. May be of interest for people as well. To follow the progress, keep track of our tweets via @NedBreslin and @waterforpeople.

Joshua Briemberg, WaterAid's Country Representative in Nicaragua

Credit: WaterAid / Joshua Briemberg

Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Libby Plumb, senior communications advisor for WaterAid in America. A version of it originally appeared here. In a previous post in honor of International Women’s Day, Libby reflected on the role of women in the WASH crisis through photos. 

Joshua Briemberg, WaterAid's Country Representative in Nicaragua, discusses the launch of WaterAid’s Nicaragua program, the organization's first foray into Latin America, and outlines future plans for helping some of the country's poorest, least accessible and largely indigenous communities gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.

Why did WaterAid decide to work in Nicaragua?
Nicaragua is considered the second poorest country in the region after Haiti with low levels of access to education, healthcare, water and sanitation, especially amongst the indigenous population in rural areas. 

In addition to almost 20 years of war and armed conflict, Nicaragua has suffered a succession of debilitating disasters including a large earthquake in 1972 and hugely destructive hurricanes in 1988, 1998 and again in 2008, which damaged the economy and social fabric. Where communities live without access to safe water and sanitation, water-related diseases are exacting a huge toll on families' health, keeping children out of school and stifling chances of economic growth.  

Which area of the country are you working in?
We work in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region on the Caribbean Coast. It is a remote, isolated region that is hard to access — only one road comes here! The area has been subject to various enclave economies, such as mining, logging, fishing and lobster catching, but most of the wealth leaves the region and the majority of people here are very poor. There are many subsistence farmers. Just one in five of the 300,000-strong population has access to safe water and sanitation. Very few organizations have worked in this tropical rainforest region, with most focusing their programs in the northern and central mountainous regions of the country.

Girls in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region carrying heavy loads of water.

Credit: WaterAid / Joshua Briemberg

Who suffers most from lack of access to water and sanitation?
Infants are the most vulnerable to diarrheal diseases caused by unsafe water and sanitation. I recently visited a community where a three-week-old baby had just died from water-related diseases.  It's often hard to tell just how many infants die as many births aren't registered or deaths aren't reported. While access to official healthcare is low, a network of local volunteers has helped to lower infant mortality by distributing oral rehydration salts. However, many children are frequently too ill with water-related diseases to attend school.  

The task of water hauling usually falls to women and girls. This exhausting work stops women from doing other activities like agricultural work and causes girls to miss school. They also face the risk of violence while collecting water from isolated riverside locations.  

Where do people get their water from?
Typical water sources are surface water supplies like small rivers or creeks, which vary greatly in both quality and quantity on a seasonal basis. During the rainy season the rivers become flooded and full of sediment, so the water is very dirty. Collecting water from raging rivers can also be very dangerous. The water is increasingly contaminated by the expansion of cattle ranching and poor migrant communities living upstream without sanitation facilities. 

Some people have set up rudimentary systems to catch rainwater from their roofs during the rainy season. Improving the design of these to make them safer and more effective is one of WaterAid's aims. There are also hand-dug wells, but they suffer from the lack of maintenance and were often poorly constructed; many dry up in the dry season. 

A rope pump in the community of Santa Clara, Nicaragua

Credit: WaterAid / Joshua Briemberg

What has WaterAid done to date?
Our priority to start with has been to help communities to improve or repair existing water points that are unsafe or broken. We have been training communities to install, maintain and repair rope pumps, a simple type of water pump that although based on an ancient concept was first reintroduced and modernized in Nicaragua and is now in use in many WaterAid programs around the globe. In this region of Nicaragua there is not a ready source of spare parts or knowledge about the pumps, so we are helping to establish robust management and maintenance systems. 

Through the vocational training of pump mechanics we're setting up people with skills they can use professionally, so as well as securing people's access to safe water, we're giving local business initiatives a boost. 

How will WaterAid help communities get water?
Together with active community participation we will map the water and sanitation needs so we know where to prioritize our assistance. We will develop prototype models of low cost and accepted water technologies — rainwater harvesting systems, hand-dug wells, rope pumps, claypot filters — and help communities with the construction work as well as setting up long-term maintenance plans. Sustainability of our work is a key concern — we are considering how to make technologies more resilient to threats such as natural disasters and vandalism.

Tell us about WaterAid's sanitation work.
We will help families to build what are locally known as eco-toilets. They are pour-flush toilets integrated into the home that are connected to septic tanks and infiltration fields. It's important to us that the toilets are in people's homes as this means that people less able to leave the home, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, will be able to benefit.

In the town of Puerto Cabezas (also known as Bilwi) we are planning to market a range of sanitation options, with finance offered through a micro-credit scheme, so that residents can pay back the costs of their new toilets in installments over time.

As well as improving health, sanitation gives people dignity and pride in their surroundings. Our sanitation programs in schools will help create healthier and more pleasant environments there, which should encourage children to attend school more often. 

JMP Indicators Updated on Funding Map

Last month, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) publicly released new country-level data on the proportion of the population using an improved drinking-water source and the proportion of the population using an improved sanitation facility. 

We’re pleased to report that WASHfunders has added the 2010 JMP data as a new overlay to its funding map, giving site users the most up-to-date contextual information about water and sanitation needs. Indicators at the country level, as well as urban and rural breakdowns, are provided. Simply go to the “Indicators” tab on the WASHfunders funding map and click on the desired indicator.

For an in-depth analysis of trends related to water and sanitation, take a look at JMP’s recently released report, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 Update

On a separate, but related note, last week more than 20 leading WASH organizations and thought leaders participated in a twitter chat on monitoring and evaluation, organized by WASHfunders and hosted by Ned Breslin of Water for People and Susan Davis of Improve International. Participants exchanged ideas and resources on M&E issues specific to the WASH sector. In case you missed it, the full transcript can be found here. You can also follow us on twitter via @WASHfunders.

Are there other economic, health, or social indicators that inform your work on water, sanitation, and hygiene? Let us know at so that we can continue to make site enhancements that meet your information needs.

Merck and the Safe Water Network have announced a three-year, $1.5 million partnership to increase access to safe water and reduce the effects of water-borne disease in impoverished communities in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Building on SWN's field activities in the region, the collaboration is designed to provide clean water to additional villages in Andhra Pradesh and develop demand-generation programs that increase household usage. The initiative addresses a critical need in India, where an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of disease is related to water contamination and poor sanitation and where more than a hundred and twenty thousand children under the age of five die each year from rotavirus diarrhea.

Together, Merck and Safe Water Network also will work to increase awareness of the importance of clean water and hygiene and drive behavior change. The campaigns will be assessed to measure their impact on safe water usage and improved health.

"Clean water is fundamental to the world's health and to Merck's mission of fighting disease and helping the world be well. Nowhere is this more true than in India, which faces a significant challenge related to clean water," said K.G. Ananthakrishnan, managing director of Merck in India. "Our partnership with Safe Water Network is a testament of our commitment to help reduce the impact of water-related illness in India and of Merck's overall efforts to improve health globally."

Source: “Merck and Safe Water Network Launch Initiative to Improve Water Access and Help Reduce the Impact of Water-Borne Disease in India.” Merck Company Press Release 3/20/12.

For additional WASH-related philanthropy news, see the news feed on

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