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Editor's Note: In this post, Tal Woolsey, an International Technical Advisor with CAWST who works in areas across Africa, including Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda, tells a powerful story of what capacity building means in the WASH sector. This post originally appeared on the CAWST blog, to view the original post click here


The term capacity building is used a lot in international development and the water sector. It’s a nice, compact phrase that tries—but fails—to capture just how powerful it can be in peoples’ lives.

Sure we need clean, universal phrases to help standardize communication, but they can sterilize emotion and impact: the very things that compel us to take action.

Robinson Mufumbilwa’s story is what “capacity building” means to me. It takes more than two words to communicate his story, and stories like his. But it’s these stories that leave me with no doubt about the effect of “capacity building” on a person’s life, and how it empowers that person to then impact others.

It was 2009 and I was in Zambia as a CAWST International Technical Advisor, working with a local organization called Seeds of Hope. I was sitting in a quiet room when suddenly there was a knock on the door, and a young man walked in, introducing himself as Robinson. He had completed a three-month community development program through a local college, been to a biosand filter seminar and was raring to go. The problem was, he didn’t really know how to go. He was excited and was hoping Seeds of Hope would commit to building biosand filters in his village.

I told him to remember what he’d learned about needs assessments. They were the best way to get an agency to commit because they helped to determine whether there was demand or need for filters in a village. I told him it wouldn’t take much more than some photocopying and going door to door in his village, and asked how much he thought it would cost.

Robinson said he thought it would cost about 50 Kwacha, the equivalent of nine Canadian dollars, which I told him didn’t sound like all that much.

Not much, but it was money Robinson didn’t have. So I pulled the equivalent of ten dollars out of my pocket and gave it to Robinson, who thanked me and walked out of the room.

Over the next few weeks, I visited several other African countries as I continued my work for CAWST. I never thought I’d see Robinson again and if I did, I guessed he had spent his money on something other than doing a needs assessment in his community.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to Zambia weeks later, I found Robinson sitting in an office at Seeds of Hope with a neat stack of papers on his lap, waiting to speak to someone. He had all these sheets of his needs assessment, and they had been compiled into percentages of houses visited and so on, all the stuff he’d learned to do.

Robinson wanted to hand the pile of information to someone at Seeds of Hope. So, I advised him to go straight to the Biosand Filter Centre and to present his research directly to management. That’s exactly what Robinson did. Through his research, Seeds of Hope understood the need and subsequently supplied filters to people in his village.

Three months passed when I again found Robinson, this time working in the Biosand Filter Centre, building the very filters that would benefit his village with his own two hands.

In later years, I returned to Zambia to teach seminars on rainwater harvesting, monitoring and evaluation, water quality testing and so on. Robinson was a participant in all of them, an avid learner and an increasingly valuable asset.

In 2012 I discovered Robinson had become Manager of the Biosand Filter Centre. Since then, he has been going through the CAWST Competency Validation Process and has achieved the designation of Lead Trainer. He has delivered training in Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and, I expect as time goes by, many more African countries. He has become a leader and a subject matter authority in water issues.

I often wonder what would have happened if Robinson hadn’t taken that first seminar on the biosand filter and what would have happened if I didn’t have ten bucks in my pocket that day.

For me, this is the story of capacity building.  Investing in knowledge and people is what makes a difference. Yes, it’s capacity building, but what does that really mean?  It is believing in human beings and their ability to learn, to teach and to change lives. It’s an idea that may take longer to communicate, but which is far more compelling.

Editor's Note: In this post, Susan Davis, Founder of Improve International and Contributing Editor at Engineering for Change, discusses the growing crisis of wastewater treatment.

Lavender Hill Accra by Emory CGSW team

Fecal Plume from Lavender Hill. Photo Credit: The Emory CGSW team

There is a place called Lavender Hill in Accra, Ghana, where trucks dump 250,000 gallons of untreated sewage onto a beach and into the ocean every day. I was recently in Ghana to attend the annual conference of Loughborough University’s Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), where I heard other examples of the destinations and consequences of untreated wastewater.

The trucks pump fecal sludge from latrines in Accra’s neighborhoods without sewer lines and dump it, creating the brown plume shown in the photo. There is a wastewater treatment plant, but it is closed. The plant was financed by the United Kingdom and designed by a Dutch engineering firm, and it was functional for less than four years. It failed due to inadequate training of local operators and because it was designed for more dilute wastewater.

In another example, Bukom, a neighborhood in Accra, has a sewer line that goes straight to the ocean. Untreated wastewater from communities, laboratories, hospitals, and even morgues is used to irrigate vegetable gardens in Accra, as well.  This is similar to many other cities in developing countries. The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector has not paid much attention to wastewater in the past, perhaps because the Millennium Development Goals focused on increasing access to improved toilet facilities.

“Far less attention has been paid towards ensuring that waste streams are adequately collected and treated prior to discharge into the environment,” Catarina de Albuquerque, former Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, wrote in framing paper for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Wastewater is defined as “a combination of one or more of:

  • domestic effluent consisting of blackwater (excreta, urine and faecal sludge) and greywater (kitchen and bathing wastewater);
  • water from commercial establishments and institutions, including hospitals;
  • industrial effluent, stormwater and other urban run-off;
  • agricultural, horticultural and aquaculture effluent, either dissolved or as suspended matter.

Untreated wastewater can spread disease to humans and damage key ecosystems such as coral reefs and fisheries. Yet, 80% to 90% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or oceans untreated. This means that two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste is discharged into the world’s waterways each year. The combination of increasing wastewater production, increasing population, and rapid urbanization will lead to an ugly situation if we don’t rethink wastewater management.

Beyond treatment, we will also need to devise ways to reuse and recycle water. Wastewater is “simply too valuable to waste,” as Duncan Mara wrote in his book Domestic Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries. The UN has predicted that by 2030, the world water supply will fall short by at least 40 percent, hitting areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia particularly hard. Reusing wastewater can help to ameliorate this challenge and, even better, it can be a source of nutrients for agricultural use.

The problem has caught global attention. Wastewater is now an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two of the SDG 6 targets specifically mention wastewater:

  • By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
  • By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

There are some promising solutions in place now that could be scaled up or replicated in other countries. In Part Two of this series we will look at examples of some of these promising solutions including decentralized wastewater treatment technologies that are being deployed in developing countries.

Editor's Note: In this post, Anh-Thi Le,  Program Coordinator at Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California-Berkeley, discusses how mobile technology has been harnessed to improve water access. This post originally appeared on USAID's website, to view the original post click here.


NextDrop’s real-time data and messaging system uses SMS to inform subscribers about when they’ll be receiving water, when there’s a delay, when pipe damage is likely to affect them, and when someone in the community has updates to share. / NextDrop

Although nearly half of the world’s population now has water piped into their homes and there have been significant improvements to water access in recent decades, many people living in urban areas of developing countries still do not have easy access to this most basic resource. And even where pipes do reach the urban poor, water sometimes does not.

“Literally, people wait around their house until the water comes on,” said Anu Sridharan, a founder of a social enterprise called NextDrop. “We’ve met people who’ve missed weddings, funerals and meetings.”

If customers miss a water supply window, then they may have to wait two to 10 days for their next chance. Unreliable water supply is a serious impediment to health and economic development. In India, 250 million people rely on unreliable water systems.

Sridharan created the phone-based program NextDrop to notify people when water will be available. In 2010, NextDrop won the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, allowing Sridharan — a University of California-Berkeley civil engineering graduate — and her team of fellow UC Berkeley graduates to begin acting on their vision.

The service has reached 75,000 registered users in Bangalore, India. Now, the Development Impact Lab at Berkeley, with USAID funding from the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network, is evaluating the effects of the text message-based notification system. The evaluation has reached 1,500 households so far.

This May, Big Ideas celebrates its 10 year anniversary at UC Berkeley. Since its founding in 2006, the year-long contest has provided funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students who have innovative solutions for addressing global challenges.


Emily Kumpel, representing the NextDrop team, accepts an award in 2011 to scale up the team’s pilot study in Hubli-Dharwad. / Big Ideas Contest

Big Ideas is an example of how a university can be a catalyst for high-impact social innovation and research in international development, helping achieve an end to extreme poverty. The story of Big Ideas winner NextDrop demonstrates how a project that began on a college campus is now building evidence to reach scale.

From Classroom Idea to Reality

The seed funding that Sridharan and her team won from the Big Ideas Contest helped them to develop their simple but innovative idea: using text messages and crowd-sourced information to alert residents one hour before water will be heading down municipal pipes and into their homes.

NextDrop’s system involves collecting water flow information from valvemen — the individuals responsible for opening and closing the valves controlling water flow into particular districts — and notifying NextDrop customers.

This allows households not only to have accurate and timely information but also enables water utilities to access real-time information about the status of their systems.

The student team partnered with an NGO in Hubli, India for a pilot study of 200 households. Preliminary results were positive and the group was able to continue and refine their technology.

With funding from the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative University, and the Knight Foundation, they began scaling their services beyond Hubli to the Indian cities of Bangalore and Mysore.

Building an Evidence Base for Scale

The evaluation of the rollout of NextDrop’s services will demonstrate whether receiving text message notifications of when water is flowing improves a family’s quality of life, so they don’t have to spend as much time waiting — time that could’ve been spent working or at school.


Each year, a household in India loses an estimated seven days waiting for intermittent water. NextDrop seeks to reduce consumers’ coping costs in developing countries. / NextDrop

The research team is also using survey data from the household impact evaluation to assess the accuracy of valvemen reports to NextDrop. The end goal is to provide NextDrop and the utility with a low-cost system for verifying and adjusting data provided by the valvemen, so that the utility has more accurate information about water flows to be able to manage limited water supplies.  

If NextDrop’s services are shown to be valuable in Bangalore, they will be able to scale their approach across other major cities in developing countries.

From early stage funding and support through the Big Ideas contest to evidence-based decision making and scale-up through the Development Impact Lab, projects like NextDrop have shown how the university has become a powerful space for inspiring, launching, developing and scaling big ideas.

As Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas shares, “University-based programs like Big Ideas provide the perfect ecosystem for early-stage entrepreneurs by providing the resources, funding and ultimately the validation that allows ideas like NextDrop to thrive.”

Editor's Note: In this post, Agha Ali Akram of Evidence Action, explores why despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. Ali Akram conducted this work independently and the following does not reflect the views/opinions of Evidence Action. This post originally appeared on DefeatDD's website, to view the original post click here.   

Despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, it was an unpleasant surprise for me to learn that it kills more than half a million children a year, predominantly in the developing world. More troubling still, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. This got me curious: why is this the case?

What I Did: The Experiment

In a randomized controlled trial in Karachi, Pakistan, I test the hypothesis that perhaps families need tools that clearly demonstrate the impact of health interventions – in this case, chlorine tablets for water purification.


Figure 1
Info-Tool required weekly recording of diarrheal incidence and monthly comparison to a reference level.

I provided households with a simple visual tool (called Info-Tool) to help them assess the efficacy of using tablets. Info-Tool allowed households to record incidences of diarrhea using simple bar charts. Additionally, at the end of each month, I provided them a bar chart of the normal rates of diarrhea they could expect for that month. Diarrhea varies with season, so the norm I provided was a moving monthly reference (related to the number of children under five in the household) and Info-Tool allowed households to visually compare their bar charts to the reference level.

blog figure 2

Figure 2
Form of the experiment: control group in blue and treatment in green.

The experiment had a control group and treatment group, and rolled out in three phases. In Phase 1, which lasted three months, the treatment group used Info-Tool and built up a pre-tablet record of diarrhea prevalence. Info-Tool allowed them to understand where their levels tracked in comparison to the provided reference. In Phase 2, which also lasted three months, the treatment group continued to use Info-Tool but both groups were offered the option of accepting free chlorine tablets. In Phase 3, I discontinued the treatment group’s use of Info-Tool but both groups continued to receive freely provided chlorine tablets.

What I Found: Remarkable Results

Chlorine tablet use was significantly and persistently higher in the treatment group. At 74 weeks from the start of tablet delivery (beginning of Phase 2), the treatment group was almost twice as likely as the control group to accept the tablets, with the control group acceptance rate at 26% and the treatment group at almost 60% (see Figure 3).

Two results really struck me. First, my data show that as we enter the subsequent summer season (near the 46 week mark), both groups demonstrated higher tablet acceptance. Significantly, the treatment group’s summer increase in uptake was higher than the control group. To me, this suggests an impact of Info-Tool on households’ fundamental understanding of disease seasonality i.e. households seemingly better understood the “dynamics” of diarrhea.

A more striking result to me, however, was the fact that children in treatment households tended to measure significantly better than control households on health outcomes such as weight (22% gain), height (6% gain), and mid-upper arm circumference (3.5% gain). This suggests that the use of tablets had real measurable health impacts.

blog figure 3

Figure 3
Predicted probability of accepting offered chlorine tablets by treatment arm. The x-axis has time (weeks) while the y-axis shows predicted probability of uptake in a given week. The control group is shown in blue while the treatment group is shown in red. Dotted vertical lines indicate specific dates and phases of the experiment.

The results suggest that allowing households to track and reference their disease prevalence increased their ability to detect the efficacy of chlorine tablets, thus making the intervention far more successful. More specifically, I believe that households were able to better learn about the effectiveness of tablets because Info-Tool provided a more precise signal about tablet effectiveness. It is also apparent that households possess a general sense of the seasonality of the problem but with the augmented learning from the Info-Tool, treatment households show a higher likelihood to accept offered tablets as the “danger” (summer) season started.

What this Means: Policy Recommendations

I believe this study points the way forward in two important ways. First, it demonstrates a powerful new way to address a major global health challenge i.e. under-five diarrhea with its associated health costs. I found that the intervention had strong and persistent effects a year after it began, inducing people to adopt chlorine tablets when they otherwise would not have.

Second, it confirmed to me that people can and do make beneficial health decisions – we’ve just got to help them “see” that those decisions have real benefits. Giving people clearer signals on how they benefit from their use of supposedly beneficial technology sparks greater participation. Moreover, I can imagine analogues to this technique being applied to other domains where health technology adoption is critical such as adoption of anti-malarial bed-nets and drug regimens for diseases like TB and HIV. 

Editor's Note: In this post, Kylie Bates, Director of GameChangers, an organization that uses partnerships to make sport and communities stronger, discusses how sports organizations and organizations that solve water, sanitation and hygiene issues can join forces for change.

I am in sitting under a mango tree in Munda in the western province of the Solomon Islands, exchanging banter and observations with a group of teenage girls as they pull on their shoes and adjust their shin pads. The coach blows a whistle in the distance and within seconds the group is on the field, contracting and expanding again to run through kaleidoscopic drills. Three girls are left sitting under the tree and when I ask them why, they explain they each have their period. It is an awkward conversation and a common issue. Each member of this training squad misses one in four weeks of training due to menstruation.


WaterAid and Netball PNG’s support means girls in villages can participate fully in all aspects of life. Photo credit: WaterAid Australia

Taking part in this soccer program also means the girls will probably be among the 20% to 35% of Solomon Islands teenagers who get to finish high school. One father boasts his daughter is the hero of their village when she teaches the boys new drills and tricks. He says she is starting to change people’s minds about what girls are capable of doing. The girls don’t know it yet, but they will eventually be the backbone of the national soccer team. Being on the field, not under the mango tree, sends their life on a new trajectory.

The other main thing holding these girls back from playing and performing in their sport is surprising due its abundance on this tropical Pacific Island: water. 

People who play and organise games of sport need to be free from diseases that stop them in their tracks for days or weeks. They need to be free from bacteria spread by unclean water, poor hygiene behaviour, and open defecation. Adolescent girls and young women need convenient and effective ways to manage menstruation so they can confidently take part in all activities. They need the option of using hours usually absorbed walking long distances to water sources, or looking after young brothers and sisters who have infectious diseases, to train and play. In some countries buying water is expensive, leaving no discretionary income left for sport participation. More parents would support their daughters to play a sport if there was a toilet close to the playing field that was both clean and safe.

Reaching universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene will require US$24 billion, plus more to ensure sustainable water management. The effort pays off. For every $1 invested in water and sanitation, an average of at least $4 is returned in increased productivity.  Hygiene promotion is the most cost-effective health intervention according to the World Bank.

Perhaps as important as monetary value, reaching water, sanitation and hygiene targets requires the mobilisation of more diverse organisations that have a vested interest in the well being of their associates.

There are over 700 national sports federations in the Pacific region that have the capacity to regularly convene players, organize events, and support representative teams. Over 30 regional confederations support the national federations. Many more organisations fund, provide services to, and partner with these federations. If the more than 700 organisations that look after games of sport in the Pacific region want to flourish, then they have a vested interest in the water, sanitation, and hygiene experiences of their players both at home and on the field. 

Just as organisations that are interested in water, sanitation and hygiene are valuable to games of sport, sports have unique attributes to help progress community development objectives. Sports offer three platforms: 

1. Platform for change

Sports bring people together regularly in situations where they are with their peer groups and usually a coach or mentor. For example, when girls and young women play games of sport they develop a greater ownership and understanding of their bodies. They gain access to a safe space to grow and explore and connect with peers for social support, and learn to challenge norms and stereotypes. This creates an ideal environment for behaviour change in other areas that matter to adolescent girls, including menstrual hygiene management. As a result of Women Win’s Building Young Women’s Leadership Through Sport program in seven countries, 84% of girls had improved menstrual hygiene management compared with 49% previously.

2. Platform for advocacy and influence    

2.1 People


Captain of the PNG’s national netball team Mrs Lua Rikis encourages a new community to be healthy and active. When she is not on the court, Mrs Rikis is WaterAid PNG’s community development officer and work closely with the PNG Netball Federation to implement sport based hygiene behaviour change practices and policy. Photo credit: WaterAid Australia

The people who govern and lead games of sport often govern and lead in other parts of the community. Mobilising local resources is a key component of achieving the sustainable development goals. While there are varying reports on the degree to which they are effective in changing behaviour, they do play a role in raising awareness and contributing to highly visible conversations. In some cases there is the opportunity to train high profile athletes to play key roles in water, sanitation and hygiene activities. For example, Mrs. Lua Rikis, the captain of Papua New Guinea’s national netball team has joined the WaterAid office in Papua New Guinea. Part of her role is to engage and support Netball PNG in incorporating hygiene behaviour change and water and sanitation initiatives that are equally relevant to netball’s own mission and strategic priorities.

2.2 Policy 

The organisations that govern games of sport care about the well being of people who play their sport. Many sports have child protection policies, gender inclusion policies, and disability inclusion policies. If protecting participants’ health and safety is seen as part of the sport federation’s role, then the case can be made for sports to have water policy that describe the standards of water, sanitation, hygiene required as a prerequisite for sport participation and, importantly, help sports achieve these standards. This is especially significant for events where travelling teams rely on organisers to provide satisfactory facilities.

3. Platform to raise funds

The work of both sport and water organizations is enhanced and enlarged when there is more money available. Together, the two make a strong proposition for a funder.

For sports, partnerships with development organisations provide the design, monitoring, and evaluation rigor needed to set up an effective program. For development organizations, sports provide the profile, reach, and accessibility needed to make an impact. All of these elements are attractive to donors that are also interested in diplomatic outcomes via sport. WaterAid’s sport-based program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Papua New Guinea is blazing trails for new forms of sport and development organisation partnerships. It is also piloting new ways to engage netball players in Australia in advocacy and fundraising via connections with netball players in Papua New Guinea.

Major sport events are also effective major fundraisers. UNICEF’s fundraising initiatives at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games raised almost AUD10 million. Tackle Hunger, a partnership between the World Food Program and the Rugby World Cup, raised almost AUD3 million. The potential of these relationships has not been thoroughly explored nor consistently applied. There is an opportunity for sports sponsorship to connect to sport event fundraising, that goes on to fund sports based programming that contribute to water, sanitation, and hygiene outcomes.

When I talk to colleagues in both the water and sport businesses, I hear that the hardest thing is knowing where to start. It is also the most simple. Ask for a meeting, figure out what you want, take the first step.

Keen to know more? If you like this article subscribe to my personal blog or say hello on twitter.

Editor's Note: In this post, Jonathan Evans, Mariana Gallo, and Alivia Knol of the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), discusses how the EcoSan toilet system has helped to combat Malawi's sanitation crisis. 

With implications in areas as diverse as nutrition, education, and health, the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene is considered one of the greatest barriers to global development. In Southern Africa, Malawi is all too familiar with these far-reaching consequences. Diarrheal disease is currently the fifth cause of death in Malawi and it is estimated that poor sanitation costs the country approximately US$57 million each year.

Malawi’s sanitation crisis is perhaps most evident in the nation’s capital city of Lilongwe, and the industrial center of Blantyre. A combination of factors including a lack of a sewage treatment system, poor access to water, and a lack of space result in a complex sanitation challenge for the cities’ slums.

Currently, the most widespread model of sanitation toilet in these informal settlements is the pit latrine. Pit latrines are often smelly, fragile structures that are unsafe for children and are subject to overflow during the rainy season. Once a pit latrine becomes full, it is common for a completely new pit to be dug, making the system unsustainable. Open defecation is also commonly practiced in urban Malawian slums, with terrible health consequences.

Ecosan toilets1

The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), in partnership with the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor of Malawi, has been installing an alternative system called the Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) toilet in Malawi since 2005. EcoSan toilets are dry-composting latrines, where the human waste is mixed with soil or sawdust to decompose in anaerobic conditions, producing as a result a compost that is odorless and safe to handle. Though there is a reasonable investment of training, and money required at the installation of an EcoSan toilet, the numerous long-term benefits of this system result in overall savings. This is in sharp contrast to pit latrines, which are quite cheap in the short run, but very costly in the long run. When maintained properly, EcoSan toilets can function with minimal water supply, and will produce a dry compost final product that is not unpleasant or difficult to empty.

When dirt and soot are periodically added to the collection chamber, the EcoSan toilet can turn human waste into manure that is used as fertilizer in gardens and farms. This fertilizer can be used by EcoSan owners in their own fields, or can be sold to other farmers. This capability is not only environmentally friendly, but is a source of great monetary savings (sometimes even earnings) for the EcoSan owner.

One unforeseen benefit that has emerged in the implementation is that the EcoSan toilet has become a status symbol in the community. The sturdy, odor-free design is something that EcoSan owners take great pride in, which in turn motivates their neighbors to seek out a similar toilet for their house.

The primary drawback of the EcoSan system is the cost. The current cost of a unit is around of US $215, which includes materials and labor. This is a significant sum of money for most households in the slum areas of Lilongwe and Blantyre. To overcome this obstacle, CCODE and the Federation work to provide loans to access them, and support village savings and loan groups as a way to increase investment capacity. Other solutions have come from the beneficiaries themselves: some groups have agreed to pool their money together to pay for a toilet to be installed in one house with the understanding that everyone who contributed money will be able to use the toilet. Once they’ve saved enough money, they will pay for a toilet to be installed for the next family, and so on. This solution is not ideal, but it’s nevertheless a way to increase access for a population that would normally never be able to afford such a toilet.

Another challenge with EcoSan toilets is that they are not maintenance-free. When the toilets are not properly taken care of, they can start to smell, get clogged up, or attract flies. These issues are all completely avoidable, but the owner must be committed to the necessary upkeep.  CCODE and the Federation ensure that each and every household that gets an EcoSan toilet also receive the necessary information and training to use and maintain it properly.

Despite these challenges, the EcoSan toilet is proving to be the most adequate solution to the sanitation and hygiene crisis in Malawi. Not only does it save space and money in the long term, but it also contributes to the achievement of one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of Ensuring Environmental Sustainability. However, without adequate financing for impoverished households to install EcoSan toilets, they wouldn’t be accessible to the people that need them the most.

With the help of local savings and loans programs like the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor, and the work of numerous NGOs throughout Malawi, access to improved sanitation will continue to expand, if not as quickly as perhaps it could. Nevertheless, every single toilet that is installed means less danger for children, less exposure to disease, and less damage to the environment. There is certainly a long way to go, but progress is being made every day.

Editor's Note: In this post, Heloise Greeff Marais, Doctoral Researcher in the Water Programme, Computational Health Informatics Lab and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, discusses the opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration in the WASH sector.


Oxford’s REACH Water global consortium involves partners from many countries and organisations. Credit: REACH2016

I’m a robotics engineer from South Africa. I like technology, control theory, and data science – mostly things that don’t  (and can’t) get wet!  I know very little, if anything, about marine governance science, watershed management, or international water law. So why am I in a two-week intensive research course focussing on water, climate, and society?

Over the last decade, the need for multidisciplinary teams has been widely published, however, this approach remains poorly applied outside of the healthcare sector.  Collaboration is too often treated like a minor add-on to a project; considered an inconvenience that only causes delays in decision points.

It can be uncomfortable to leave the familiarity of our professional scope. Sometimes rather unpleasant. Like being an adult at kindergarten. It’s scary.

Relationship building is a two-way street. More specifically, capacity building of professionals should begin at an individual level through personal development before we can expect changes at an institutional and societal level. 

So, who invited the mechatronics engineer to the water event? No one. Her curiosity and compassion led her here. 

To ensure universal drinking water access by 2030, we need to not only invest in capacity building of the local communities we engage, but also the professionals we rely on. Proposed integrated approaches for water interventions focus on breaking down the silos that exist between governments, donors, and local communities, yet, often overlook their own expert role.

The people (like me) who help develop the technologies, models, and infrastructure needed to achieve water security, may not always have in-depth knowledge of climate change impact factors or socio-economic dynamics related to water.

The water sector is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. Although the impacts will be felt by developing and developed countries alike, unfortunately, it is the most marginalised who will be particularly vulnerable to the uncertainties in future weather patterns.

Recognising the pivotal role of water in climate change adaptation presents many opportunities for sustainable development. Innovative technologies and suitable implementation strategies for adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed. And with them will come the engineers, the techies, and the geeks who design them.

The Oxford Smart Handpump, which I work on, is a brilliant example of the potential impact of a social innovation emerging from successful cross-functional collaboration towards a common goal: universal drinking water security. Open communication and continuous feedback between engineers and geographers ensure a more robust technology while maximising social impact.

A two-week course on water and society by no means makes me an expert in the field of climate change or water security. But it does do something much more powerful: it begins to break down the silos that exist between different professional fields that evidently share a passion.

Social and natural scientists think, argue and view the world differently than engineers. But by entering a world in which I am considered an “outsider” and acknowledging that I lack speciality skills and insights, I make room for other people’s gifts. Making ourselves vulnerable is not easy and some may consider it a liability. But I recognise that technical expertise alone will not enable me to deliver the most impactful innovation.

In short, collaboration is not only a good investment, but also a necessity.

Water is pure. It cleans, renews, and gives life. But water is complex, water policy is messy and global water laws are murky. Impactful innovations require multi-dimensional approaches and unconventional expertise. It needs multidisciplinary teams.

So, who will invite the mechatronics engineer to the next water event? Everyone. I hope.

Editor's Note: Reaching the new Global Goals for safe water and sanitation will take an enormous investment. Learn how Kenyan banks and utilities — with some international support — are making water access a commercially viable business, while serving the needs of the poor. This post originally appeared on Medium and was published by the USAID Water Team. To view the original post click here


Photo Credit: Bobby Neptune Photography LLC

Peaceful, jacaranda-shaded Embu, Kenya resembles many small cities in East Africa: bustling on market days, dusty and a little sleepy the rest of the week. But, water is always a major concern of its residents.

Though Embu is situated near several rivers in the shadow of Mount Kenya, the county government struggles to bring water to the town and neighboring villages through an aging network of leaky pipes dating to the 1970s. Currently, more than half of people in Embu do not have access to improved water service.

“People used to spend half a day collecting water — and water quality was very poor,” said H.M. Kerungendo, the managing director of the Embu Water and Sanitation Company (EWASCO).

Globally, satisfying water and sanitation needs will take enormous investments that are beyond the ability of Official Development Assistance (ODA) or public financing alone. In Kenya, water utilities face an estimated $2.6 billion financing gap — or more than 10 times the Kenyan government’s budget for water supply and sanitation for 2015–16.

Closing these gaps will require new solutions and new funding sources, including mobilizing domestic capital and capacity.

Bringing Water Utilities out of the ‘Shadows’

Photo Credit: Bobby Neptune Photography LLC

In Embu, expanding access to water services came in the form of a unique partnership among a bank, a utility company, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP).

In 2011, WSP released a shadow credit rating report that helped attract commercial bank interest in the water sector. Establishing credit ratings helps financial institutions to understand how the water service providers will be able to service loans, and makes the lending to the water sector more attractive and transparent.

In 2012, as part of a strategy to connect local utilities to local financial markets and reduce their reliance on central government transfers and donor support, USAID provided a loan guarantee through its Development Credit Authority to Kenya Housing Finance (KHF), a local financial institution. Under the terms of the agreement, USAID agreed to take 50 percent of the repayment risk on each loan KHF made to water companies.

The credit guarantee was complemented by capacity building efforts provided through USAID and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). USAID’s advisors helped Mr. Kerungendo and his EWASCO colleagues develop a proposal for a loan from KHF and a business plan to support loan repayment. The IFC also worked with EWASCO to undertake an audit that led to improvements in their business processes, financial management and planning.

This support helped make the Embu water utility more attractive as a potential borrower to Kenyan lenders.

From Loan to Pipeline

In May 2014, KHF approved a nearly $1 million loan to EWASCO — the largest commercial loan ever made to a Kenyan water utility.

“The guarantee allowed my bank to make a loan to EWASCO, our first loan in the water sector”, says Anne Murugu, a KHF Loan Officer. Kenyan banks have historically shied away from the water sector, due to borrowers’ lack of collateral and borrowing experience.

Over the following year, the utility used the loan proceeds to install 18 miles of new pipe in peri-urban areas of Embu county, significantly improving the water supply for 100 schools, 15 clinics and 50,000 community members.

“We had lots of problems regarding water. Before the pipeline, we would wake up very early and walk up to 9 kilometers to fetch water. We spent hours searching for water because it was rationed”, recalls Jemimah Wagathare, a resident of Embu’s suburbs.

By bringing these pieces together — the needs of people with financing and technical solutions, Kenya and its global partners are creating the foundation for a sustainable, inclusive and commercially viable water sector.


Photo Credit: Bobby Neptune Photography LLC

A special thanks to Glenn Pearce-OrozHeather Skilling, and Brook Adam for their contributions to this article. To subscribe to Global Waters magazine, click here. For more information about the Sustainable Urban Water and Sanitation in Africa (SUWASA) program, see “Changing the Landscape for Africa’s Urban Water Services. For additional information:

● USAID — Development Credit Authority Impact Brief

● USAID — Pathways for Urban Water and Sanitation Reforms

● WSP — Turning Finance into Services for the Future

Editor's Note: In this post, Dylan Lunney, Director of Communications for OHorizons, discusses the Low Tech, High Thinking approach to creating affordable, simple solutions that can have a meaningful impact on WASH issues.


Bangladeshi Women. Photo credit:

Low-tech, scalable, local solutions present an exciting opportunity to address the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) objectives laid out in goal number six of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling WASH issues, but in order for development projects to be successful and sustainable, communities should not be bystanders in projects that are designed to help them. This belief is underscored within SDG 6 section 6.6b

In addition, solutions addressing the challenges of people living in poverty should be designed by carefully examining and accounting for the needs, practices, and available resources of the end-user. This seems like a basic, self-evident concept, however the history of water development projects demonstrates otherwise.

Take for instance that the cumulative cost of failed water systems in sub-Saharan Africa alone was estimated to be $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion from 1987-2007. The poster child of this development design failure is the PlayPump, an initially highly-touted safe drinking water ‘solution’ that quickly failed when it turned out that kids would have to ‘play’ for 27 hours a day to filter the intended amount of water. Development projects that fail to incorporate the needs, skills, habits, and resources of the end-user don’t produce their intended result—in this instance providing safe drinking water—and they are an enormous waste of money, time, and resources. Instead, beneficiaries should be involved in identifying the technology and approach that will benefit them most and the community should be directly involved in the building and maintaining of their local infrastructure.

OHorizons, where I work, is part of this appropriate design movement in WASH global development. We call our design process Low-Tech, High-Thinking.

A lot of attention is given to the newest app or high-tech gadget. You’ve probably heard of Bill Gate’s highly celebrated machine that turns human waste into water. It’s impressive. It’s also impractical for most poor, rural communities, where the water and sanitation crisis is particularly dire, who likely don’t have the infrastructure or funds to build or maintain this $1.5 million dollar facility that is roughly the size of two school buses.

The core belief behind the Low-Tech, High-Thinking movement is that it takes just as much creativity and ingenuity to create affordable, simple solutions that can have a meaningful impact on a global scale. Understanding the systemic underlying causes along with listening to and learning from the end- user, is a vital part of this design process. Adhering to the following principles can also help guide this process and ensure a solution is truly centered around the beneficiaries and the environment in which they live:

Low-Tech Principles

Simple: Anyone, regardless of education level or expertise, should be able to develop and implement a solution with minimal instruction.

Low-cost: The solution should be affordable to the end-user.

Locally-sourced: 100% of the materials, tools, and labor should be available locally.

Flexible: Every community is different and has different resources available to them; solutions should be flexible enough to adapt to varying local conditions.

Open-source: Solutions should be freely available to anyone who would like to utilize them.

OHorizons has used this approach to engineer a Wood Mold for the production of concrete BioSand Filters (BSFs). BioSand Filters (BSFs) are a low-tech, household appliance that use sand, gravel, and natural biological processes to filter pathogens out of water, making it safe for drinking. We’ve made our step-by-step construction manual open-source so that local organizations can manufacture BSFs for a fraction of the upfront costs of the traditional steel mold. Our Molds make more than 50 concrete filters without an issue due to the use of our patented collapsible inner core and 2” x 2” supports that hold the outer walls of the Mold together with bolts rather than screws, which strip the wood. This innovation allows more people to get safe drinking water at an exponentially faster rate. 

There exist many other fantastic household level solutions that follow similar design parameters. Two of my favorites are the Tippy Tap for hand-washing and the C.R.A.P.P.E.R. for toilets.


The Tippy Tap is a hands free way to wash your hands and is especially appropriate for rural areas where there is no running water. It is operated by a foot lever and thus reduces the chance for bacteria transmission as the user touches only the soap. They’re also very easy to build and can be made with basic, low-cost materials.

The organization Toilets for People (TFP) has designed a high-quality composting toilet that they’ve appropriately named the C.R.A.P.P.E.R. (compact, rotating, aerobic, pollution-prevention, excreta reducer). It’s user-friendly and easy to maintain, can be made from locally available materials for about $100, and is being built around the world by NGOs serving their communities.

Here’s a video of TFP in Peru with their NGO partner Amazon Promise, building 17 CRAPPERS:


Toilets for People’s founder Jason Kass, is a passionate ambassador for bridging the gap between the appropriate technologies already out there and creative implementation on the ground.

As we continue to develop solutions for water, sanitation, and hygiene, one area to think seriously about investing in is low-tech, human-centered design projects that transform beneficiaries into local change makers. Harnessing the power of people through Low-Tech, High-Thinking Design can and should play an important role in helping ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030!


Editor's Note: In this post, Rob Goodier, Engineering for Change News Editor, discusses the new Solutions Library and how it can be used to increase effectiveness in the WASH sector. 

Reinvention of the wheel is a common mistake in global development, and the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is not immune. There must be hundreds of prototypes languishing on closet floors and hard drives after failing to reach the market while proven, off-the-shelf filters, chlorinators and so on may be acceptable for the job.

The same goes for choosing the right product for each context. We have to start with what’s meeting (and not meeting) the users’ needs in order to avoid wasted investment. And we have to do it throughout the value chain.

That’s why Engineering for Change has built a new Solutions Library of hundreds of products that meet basic needs. The products cover nearly every aspect of global development, including dozens in the water and sanitation sector.

The layout makes it easy to compare biosand filters by Bushproof, Ideas at Work and Hydraid, for example, or to examine the CRAPPER alongside the EkoLakay and the Blue Box Toilets.

The Solutions Library is a due diligence resource, a living database of neutral, performance-based information. The entries help answer three important questions for global development technology:

  • Which solution is appropriate for the context and constraints?
  • What has scaled and what has stalled?
  • Does the solution perform as expected?

We have heard from engineers and others in global development that answering those three questions has been difficult. Practitioners are starved for high-quality information. Another thing we’ve heard often from global development professionals is that new, unproven gadgets get as much, if not more, attention as proven products.

Repeated mistakes can slow global development efforts. It has been hard to find information about so-called “prior art,” the wheels that have already been invented. That leads to undeveloped prototypes or, worse, the rusted-out bones of dead projects that were delivered and then failed.

The reasons for failure can be technical, cultural, financial or a combination thereof, but the end result is the same: wasted investment. Our answer is normalized, objective data that is rigorously harvested and reviewed by experts. Practitioners can reduce the risk of failure and spend their money wisely with our side-by-side comparisons of the products that can meet their goals.

That’s why we did this. We believe the Solutions Library is the first stop in the decision for which technology will be the best fit in any given context. It is a work in a constant state of flux, with periodic updates that incorporate suggestions from our network of development engineers and other professionals. As you explore the resource, please share your ideas and tips based on your experience. We hope to include the advice of the WASH community in our improvements. 

Please visit the Solutions Library, share it with colleagues and collaborators and contribute. Real working solutions start here:

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