Editor’s Note: This guest blog post is authored by Alix Zwane, Executive Director of Evidence Action. In her post, Alix lauds the increased attention given to evidence-based innovations in development and describes the Dispensers for Safe Water initiative as an example of a WASH intervention grounded in this data-driven approach.
Evidence-based development innovations are finally all the rage. The UK's Department for International Development and USAID announced the Global Development Innovation Ventures (GDIV) Fund almost exactly a year ago to focus development investments on “innovative approaches with proven, radically successful results.” Just a few weeks ago, USAID launched its Global Development Lab that aims to “test and scale breakthrough development innovations.” And even more recently, a senior policy advisor to the president of the European Commission argued that evidence should trump politics and diplomacy for deciding on aid investments.
One example of how aspirations for data-driven development translate into actual, real projects that improve millions of peoples’ lives is the Dispensers for Safe Water initiative. Chlorine dispensers currently serve over two million people in East Africa and are on track to grow to four million people by the end of this year, and 25 million by 2018.
Chlorine dispensers installed directly at the water source represent an important innovation in the rural water sector. They solve a number of challenges that have hindered sustainable, quality services for cleaner water to date -- despite the billions that have been spent on water and sanitation projects. And because the approach has been vigorously tested, we can say definitively that chlorine dispensers work at a fraction of the cost of typical water projects, and at high adoption rates by people most in need of clean water.
What Are Chlorine Dispensers?
Dispensers are installed directly at the water source and contain enough chlorine for a community using the water source for about a month. A person collecting water turns a knob that releases enough chlorine to clean 20 liters of water -- the typical amount that people collect from the source and carry home. The dispensers are rugged and durable, and maintained and marketed by local health promoters who educate the community about the utility of adding small amounts of chlorine to the drinking water, and check and refill the dispensers as needed.
Chlorine is very cheap and effective at killing most bacterial and viral pathogens. Safety concerns with dilute chlorine are minimal, and it is widely used as a disinfectant in water treatment plants around the world. Chlorine can also provide residual protection for up to three days (depending on storage conditions), which means that it not only disinfects water, but can also prevent re-contamination.
Are People Healthier Because of Chlorine in their Water?
So what do we know about improving water quality for people? There have been a number of review articles recently that have assessed the evidence for drinking water quality interventions in developing countries. One meta study that analyzed 65 separate evaluations concluded that point-of-use (or, in the case of dispensers, point-of-source) water quality interventions appear to be highly effective -- and indeed, more effective than water supply or source treatment in reducing diarrhea -- but that this is very sensitive to the ability of the program to sustain high rates of product adoption. Obviously, a product cannot provide health benefits if people don’t use it. Another systematic review of the evidence showed that there are reductions of up to 40% of childhood diarrhea among people using the product.
Are People Actually Using Chlorine Dispensers?
The case for cost-effective impacts for dispensers rests not only on the potential for health impact. People actually have to use water treatment products if they are to be effective. The sustained use of dispensers has been documented via a rigorous randomized controlled trial (PDF) in which adoption held at about 50% for three years in the treatment group assigned to dispensers. We continue to see average adoption rates over 40% in areas where baseline water treatment with chlorine is less than 10%. For anyone in the WASH field, these are impressive rates. Adoption of chlorine at the point of service is high because it is cheap, convenient, salient, and public.
Dispensers are Sustainable and Cost-Effective
Chlorine dispensers are inexpensive, costing less than $0.50 per person per year at scale. This is considerably lower than the large infrastructure programs that may not be sufficiently invested in over time, and then fall into disuse. The low cost per person has also allowed us explore new financing models, such as using carbon credits. Chlorine reduces the need for boiling water, so dispensers can be financed that way. And because chlorine dispensers are inexpensive to maintain, carbon revenue covers the costs even as the initiative expands to serve 25 million people in 2018.
We believe that evidence and rigorous testing of new development approaches is critical in order to scale what works to reach millions, and are pleased that the global development field is moving in the direction of being more rigorously data-driven and evidence-based.
Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Carmen da Silva Wells, programme officer at IRC. In the lead up to the Fifth WASH Sustainability Forum in the Netherlands at the end of this month, Carmen writes about the increasing recognition of the importance of sustainability among actors in the WASH sector. Referencing a mapping of sustainability tools that IRC’s Triple-S project recently undertook, she highlights one of the key findings: that while there are many tools that have been developed to assess and promote sustainability in the WASH sector, work still remains around how these tools are applied. This post originally appeared on IRC’s blog here.
Registration for next week’s Forum in Amsterdam is full, but if you’re in the area, you can add yourself to the waitlist. And if you’ll be attending the conference and are involved in the WASH sector from a philanthropic angle, join the WASH Grantmakers Network at their orientation dinner before the conference on June 29th. Details on how to RSVP can be found here.
Sustainability is a hot topic in the development sector at large. In the water and sanitation sector, there have been a range of events, partnerships and websites dedicated to collectively recognising, understanding and addressing sustainability challenges. In March this year, for example, the Australian WASH sector organised the 'WASH for everyone, everywhere' conference in Brisbane exploring the topic in light of the post-2015 development agenda.
The Amsterdam Forum will be held on June 30 and July 1. It is the fifth in a series of international WASH sustainability events organised by a coalition of organisations. IRC, Aguaconsult, Global Water Challenge and WASH Advocates have been core driving members behind the WASH Sustainability Forum series. This year's event is also supported by UNICEF, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Program.
Exploring sustainability tools
According to Harold Lockwood of Aguaconsult, one of the organisations behind the fifth edition, there is a definite shift in mind-sets since the first one in 2010: "There is a collective recognition, as well as growing momentum and support around moving towards a service delivery approach. We seem to be at a tipping point, where discussions initially focused on why we need to focus on sustainability, but are now moving to the 'how to' part of the equation for different actors.”
The 5th WASH Sustainability Forum aims to move donors, civil society and governments towards application of sustainability principles and tools. One of the significant inputs to the event is a study of WASH sustainability tools conducted by Aguaconsult as part of Sustainable Services at Scale, or Triple-S, an IRC-led initiative. A Triple-S Working Paper, 'Mapping of WASH sustainability tools' contains the findings of the mapping, as well as the outcomes of an online survey looking into demand for sustainability tools and a 2-part webinar series.
The good news is that there are plenty of tools out there for understanding, measuring, or predicting sustainability. The assessment included a review of over 220 tools, and the 25 tools with clear content and methodology for understanding, measuring, or predicting sustainability have been presented as 1-page practical summaries in the Working Paper. Altogether these 25 sustainability tools have been applied 92 times in 52 countries, with most addressing the technical, institutional, and management areas that affect sustainability.
There are also notable gaps, such as tools that can be applied across all stages of the service life-cycle, tools that address sanitation and hygiene interventions and that can be applied to urban or peri-urban areas.
According to Ryan Schweitzer, Claire Grayson and Harold Lockwood, authors of the Working Paper, the emergence of clusters of similar sustainability assessment tools is a positive signal that a new paradigm is emerging in the sector. However, most tools are driven by external development partner organisations. Therefore, one of their key findings is that much more effort needs to be made to align tools with country monitoring systems and sector capacities and to use the data that these tools generate in order to improve services.
This challenge of linking tools with national systems – and indeed showcasing some national government tools – will be one of the core topics at the Forum. Representatives from government, private sector, donors and NGOs will engage in a panel debate to talk about how to improve the application and alignment of tools so that investments in the sector deliver services that last.
This year’s 5th annual WASH Sustainability Forum will take place from June 30 to July 1 at the RAI in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. While previous WASH Sustainability Forums focused on concepts underpinning sustainability, this year’s Forum is oriented around the application of sustainability principles to WASH projects.
To introduce this theme, the WASH Grantmakers Network (WGN), together with Xylem Watermark, will host an orientation dinner in advance of the Forum, on June 29th. The dinner will provide guests with an overview of the Forum and offer tips on making the most of your attendance.
WGN is coordinated by WASH Advocates and is an affinity group for philanthropic organizations focused on WASH issues. To RSVP for this free dinner, contact Ben Mann at bmann@WASHadvocates.org or +1-202-293-4002. Registration for the Forum is also available online here.
Each of the two hour-long webinars will share the results of a landscaping study of sustainability-related tools for WASH that was carried out by Aguaconsult as part of the Sustainable Service at Scale (Triple-S) Initiative.
March 4th (9 am EST, 2 pm UTC) and March 18th (10 am EST, 2 pm UTC)
March 4th Presenters:
- Sam Godfrey, UNICEF
- Heather Skilling, USAID
- Agnes Montangero, HELVETAS
- Julia Boulenouar, Aguaconsult
March 18th Presenters:
- Andre Olschewski, SKAT
- Antonio Manuel Rodríguez Serrano, Water and Sanitation Program, World Bank
- Ryan Schweitzer, Aguaconsult
To register for the webinar series, click here.
Editor’s Note: This guest blog post was authored by Ben Seidl, program director at World Water Relief, an NGO launched in 2008 with the goal of bringing sustainable water purification solutions to people in developing nations. In his post, Ben discusses the push for better monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in the WASH sector and the challenges and opportunities that this trend presents for small NGOs. Ben emphasizes the importance of local engagement as the key to both effective M&E and, ultimately, project sustainability.
As the WASH sector continues to expand and strengthen its role in global health, the sector’s trends and objectives have become more data-oriented and results-focused. Mobile, field-level technology has enabled NGOs to undertake data processing and monitoring of water resources in real-time…a practice that was previously only afforded to large municipal utilities and corporations. While this technological leap has ushered in a new era of transparency and reporting, there are some fundamental building blocks of sustainability that are beyond data.
Human capital is still the true driver behind sustainability and M&E in the WASH sector. Local, dedicated stakeholders are the true source of long-term sustainability and accurate, reliable monitoring and evaluation. Without the involvement of these local community stakeholders, the sustainability of any WASH project will undoubtedly wither over time.
As Program Director for World Water Relief in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, my team and I are tasked with building a responsive and flexible monitoring program to ensure that our projects are creating measurable impact and consistent WASH service delivery. World Water Relief is an NGO with limited manpower and resources. Thus, we are faced with the challenge of producing high-quality WASH projects with a high level of feedback and sustainability on a shoestring budget.
Without the funds for advanced technology and data collection, we are tasked with finding alternative ways to ensure that our WASH projects are meeting these three criteria:
I) Beneficiaries’ needs
II) Industry and international standards
III) Donor expectations
To address each of these criteria in a cost-effective way, we need to craft local, low-technology relationship networks to implement and feed our data and sustainability measures. As an organization of less than ten employees, we depend on the passion, dedication, and involvement of the stakeholders in the communities we work in to be the drivers behind our sustainability and M&E initiatives.
One such program we employ in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic is the Youth Water and Hygiene Club. This type of school-based youth programming has been championed by the WASH sector as an intervention capable of providing youth with leadership training, experiential learning, and an in-depth opportunity to learn and practice water, sanitation, and hygiene solutions firsthand. Our Youth Water and Hygiene Club has been both catalyzing for the participating youth and beneficial to the schools and communities they serve. Students are empowered to be active participants in improving and maintaining the World Water Relief WASH infrastructure in their respective schools and communities. This means helping to clean drinking water stations and hand washing stations, chlorinating potable water holding tanks, initiating trash and recycling collection, teaching WASH principles to student peers, and providing direct monitoring and feedback on WASH service delivery.
The second benefit of a school-integrated program like this is that M&E is conducted on a daily basis at each WASH in Schools site. The Youth Water and Hygiene Clubs provide detailed and dedicated reporting on the status of their schools WASH projects. The World Water Relief program mangers in both the DR and Haiti are in daily communication with the club officers and have frequent regional meetings that feature 82 youth from 16 schools. These meetings provide an excellent opportunity for club leaders to learn from each other and for World Water Relief to continue empowering an inter-connected network of dedicated WASH youth.
The ultimate goal of WASH M&E initiatives is to provide insightful field-level information and analysis that drives accurate and timely project oversight. Ideally, WASH implementers are then able to relay these informative reports to donors and stakeholders in order to prove the efficacy of WASH projects around the world. The rapid progression of technology over the past decades has greatly enhanced the sector’s ability to create and share these important results. However, when we think about sustainability and evaluation, we must remember that data and observation can only take us so far. True sustainability still lies in the hands of the local users and stakeholders.
As the WASH sector moves forward in its pursuit of real-time tracking and evaluation of project efficacy, we mustn’t lose sight of the ability and potential of end-user involvement. Data can inform and guide, but the root of sustainability is still built through long-term relationships, strong personal communication, and direct face-to-face participation.
Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by André Olschewski, water, sanitation and environmental management specialist at the Skat Foundation, a non-profit based in Switzerland. The post builds from a piece that André wrote for WASHfunders.org in June that described the EU-funded WASHTech project and its Technology Applicability Framework (TAF), a decision-making tool that helps users determine if a particular WASH technology will be sustainable in a given context. Here, André introduces the counterpart to the TAF, the Technology Introduction Process (TIP), that guides practitioners in introducing a technology once a determination of sustainability has been made.
The Technology Applicability Framework (TAF) is a tool to assess the applicability of a WASH technology in a particular context and its potential to be adopted on a large scale. Under the WASHTech project, the TAF has been tested in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Uganda on 13 different WASH technologies including the ventilated improved pit latrine, urine diverting dry toilet, rope pump, India Mark 2 Handpump, and solar powered pumps for small piped schemes or sand dams. Since then, it has been successfully applied outside the WASHTech project in Tanzania and in Nicaragua, even without any direct training. Potential users have also expressed an interest to adapt and apply the TAF to other technologies such as water point mapping tools.
WASHTech has produced a short video explaining what the TAF is and how it works. Using the example of a solar powered pump in Ghana, the animated video summarizes how the TAF captures the issues around sustainable service provision. It also features interviews with users of the TAF (such as local government officials) who offer perspectives on the added value that the framework provides.
But what are the next steps if a technology has passed the TAF testing and if you want to introduce the WASH technology for services on a larger scale? To support actors in the WASH sector in planning and management of the introduction of a WASH technology, the WASHTech project has developed a generic guide for technology introduction, the Technology Introduction Process (TIP). The TIP -- as with the TAF -- follows the spirit of the African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
For too long, efforts to introduce WASH technologies have been led by a few actors, mostly national governments and development partners, or a few isolated innovators. This often happened without proper involvement of other actors, such as the users, local political leaders, or the private sector. Increasingly, approaches such as Self Supply or Community-Led Total Sanitation are being promoted. These put more focus on user investments and the capacity of the local private sector to supply products and provide services. However, due to the limited financial capacities of households, some WASH technologies and services will still be subsidized.
The TIP guide supports the WASH sector in developing a specific process to introduce a WASH technology. At the core of the TIP, the tasks of key actors involved are defined for three phases of the introduction process:
- the invention phase, which includes the development and testing of the technology and the preparation for the launch;
- the tipping point phase; and
- the uptake and use phase.
For each of the phases, the TIP provides a generic set of tasks that should be carried out by specific actors. During the testing, the TAF can be used to develop the introduction process further and to monitor the technology and its performance.
In all three WASHTech pilot countries, government institutions have used the TIP to develop country specific guidelines for technology introduction. To aid this process, we’ve provided the generic TIP matrix, as well as examples of specific matrices that have been developed for two different cost models -- the market based approach (e.g. for Self Supply) and for a model where capital investments are subsidized. All relevant actors have been involved in developing the specific guidelines. The guidelines reflect the country specific policies on WASH service provision, subsidies, and decentralisation.
Our online resource base provides access to all documents on TAF, TIP and reports on results such as technology briefs. All documents are in the public domain. TAF and TIP users are invited to upload their case studies and to share their experiences on the user interface. For more information please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The TAF and TIP were developed under the WASHTech project. The WASHTech consortium comprises: Skat Foundation – Switzerland; IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre – Netherlands; WaterAid - UK, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Uganda; Cranfield University – UK; Water and Sanitation for Africa (WSA) – Burkina Faso; Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS) – Uganda; Training, Research and Networking for Development (TREND) – Ghana; Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) – Ghana.
Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Eric Stowe, founder and executive director of Splash, a nonprofit that aims to change the lives of vulnerable children in impoverished urban areas through WASH interventions in orphanages, schools, children’s hospitals, street shelters, and rescue homes. Eric introduces the concept of killing one’s charity and why an exit strategy is important for organizations that want to succeed at their missions and have lasting impact.
I have spent virtually every waking moment for the last six years building my international charity, Splash. As of this month, we implement WASH projects serving 250,000 children in seven countries every day — and we are fast on our way to doing so for more than one million children. In the coming months, we will achieve our largest goal yet: bringing clean water to every orphanage in China!
Needless to say, I am incredibly proud of this work, of the phenomenal team undertaking it, and of the mounting progress we’ve made. I see significant growth in our future — operationally, financially, programmatically — and even greater impact for the thousands of children we serve.
Yet, despite this significant progress, I want nothing more than to kill my charity.
I know that may seem kind of blunt for someone who has worked in the nonprofit world my entire professional career and in the WASH sector for the better part of a decade. Yet I can state without hesitation that I am tired of the same ineffective international nonprofit model and I am desperate to see a change. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply love my job, but ultimately I want to kill the organization that provides it.
For years, I have worked within and seen up close traditional international charities operating with the firm belief that they are THE solution to any problem they are tackling. I don’t agree. We’ve seen little proof in the long term that these conventional mentalities actually scale real and lasting solutions — solutions that end the perpetual cycle of their work altogether. So when I look out at the landscape of the charitable sector, I have reservations about the rapid proliferation of new charities wanting to implement or fund projects internationally.
When I first started Splash, in 2007, there were more than 12,000 U.S. charities working internationally. Six years later, there are nearly 17,000. Collectively, these nonprofits represent more than $30 billion dollars in total annual donations.
$30 billion. That is a lot of money with the potential to achieve dramatic change of the systems, and significant impact on the challenges, we in the sector work with and on. And every year forward that amount is projected to increase as will the number of charities it supports.
Now here is a critical question: how many of those organizations do you believe will go out of business, not because of poor stewardship, egregious acts, or lackluster fundraising, but because they actually accomplished their missions and can ethically and effectively close up shop? Can you name more than a handful that ever have? Conversely, how many do you believe will simply continue to grow or live on indefinitely with no end in sight? The latter is most assuredly the norm, yet the former is what every international charity claims is their long-range vision: to see a day when our work is no longer needed.
If redundancy is the goal, shouldn’t we be planning for it, then?
I started Splash believing charity at its best can solve any massive problem only by enabling the communities we serve to take over our work, do it better, more efficiently, and at greater scale in the future. Building on local strengths, facilitating locally appropriate funding streams, nurturing local community support, aligning local governmental investment and national policy, and co-creating the local businesses to serve as our replacements — all with the end goal of fundamentally erasing the necessity for our foreign charity’s presence — is not aspirational, nor is it isolated just to WASH projects. It is both an appropriate and realistic goal for virtually every organization working in the international sector: health, education, poverty, conservation, housing, and food; whether focused on kids or the elderly; working for men, women, boys, or girls.
Really, what would it look like if even a fraction of the 17,000 U.S. international charities were planning for their exits as methodically and with as much precision as they were their next gala?
There is a clear way forward that requires a disciplined way out, because charity is a means —it cannot be the end.
I recently spoke at TEDxSeattle where I highlighted what I believe are the five appropriate steps for “How To Kill Your Charity.” I urge you to watch this talk and ask the question — can the nonprofit sector be more effective? I say yes.
I welcome your comments below. You can also reach me on Twitter: @ericstowe. Please join the conversation, and learn more about how I plan to kill my charity.
The J. Craig Venter Institute, a nonprofit genomic research organization in La Jolla, California, has announced a $5 million grant from the Roddenberry Foundation for the development of wastewater treatment technologies.
The grant will be used to fund the development of JCVI scientist Orianna Bretschger's BioElectrochemical Sanitation Technology (BEST), which uses microbial fuel cells (MFC) to treat wastewater and improve sanitation and water accessibility in the developing world. As the microbes in MFCs break down the organic matter in sewage and other types of wastewater, they produce electrons. The rapid movement of electrons across a fuel cell circuit generates electricity while accelerating the breakdown of the organic matter, resulting in fewer treatment byproducts such as sludge. The efforts of Bretschger's team already have led to the successful treatment of municipal wastewater and sewage sludge at a 100-gallon per-day scale, the amount of wastewater produced by a small household on a daily basis.
"Dr. Bretschger's MFC sustainable wastewater treatment project is exactly the type of innovative, field-changing research that fits our mission," said Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, president of the Roddenberry Foundation and son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. "Her use of microbes to convert human waste into clean water and electricity is another step toward making disease a thing of the past. Her work also moves us closer to a future where all humankind's most basics needs are not just met but abundantly supplied. In the world of Star Trek, technology offers a catalyst to the natural world in making amazing things possible."
Source: “Roddenberry Foundation Gives $5 Million to J. Craig Venter Institute for Sustainable Wastewater Treatment Technology Development.” J. Craig Venter Institute Press Release 7/10/13.
For additional WASH-related philanthropy news, see the news feed on WASHfunders.org.
Editor’s Note: This blog was authored by Susan Davis, executive director of Improve International, an organization focused on promoting and facilitating independent evaluations of WASH programs to help the sector improve. Susan discusses how a “services monitoring” approach can help improve and maintain WASH services. A version of this post originally appeared here.
Last month I went to the Sustainable WASH Forum and Donor Dialogues in D.C. A theme of the conversations was roles and responsibilities, especially the roles of governments. One interesting debate was about who should be responsible for monitoring. Some said that governments should be solely responsible. There are some governments who are leading the way on this, but others (myself included) believe that this doesn’t mean that development organizations shouldn’t also be accountable for their own work. If an organization visits water and toilet systems for years after they are built, they can learn from their successes and failures and make their future work better.
Since many organizations only do monitoring & evaluation (M&E) during development programs (see my thoughts after the Learn MandE conference), I think we need to use a new term like “services monitoring” to refer to the need for a way of confirming that water and sanitation services are still available to people.
Why is services monitoring important?
- 783 million people without access to improved source of water[i] 3 billion without access to safe water[ii] 4 billion without access to safe, permanent, in home water[iii]
- 2.5 billion people without adequate sanitation[iv] 4.1 billion lack access to improved sanitation[v]
- 35-50% water and sanitation systems that fail within a few years of construction[vi]
- Less than 5% water systems that are visited at least once after they are built
- Less than 1% water systems and toilets that are monitored regularly for the long-term after they are built
Long-term services monitoring is critical for the ongoing improvement of implementing organization practice and understanding, as well as donor policies. Beyond helping individual organizations learn from their experience, services monitoring could reveal geographical or sectoral trends. What if each year, USAID, other government aid agencies, development banks, and major foundations pooled a portion of their funds for water and sanitation projects? (In fact, USAID’s recently published Water and Development Strategy indicates that USAID “will seek investments in longer-term monitoring and evaluation of its water activities in order to assess sustainability beyond the typical USAID Program Cycle and to enable reasonable support to issues that arise subsequent to post-completion of project implementation.”) These funds could be used to ensure services monitoring for all (or a sample of) previous water and sanitation systems funded by those donors in a country or region.
With this information, they could identify region-wide problems and solutions. For example, declining amounts of water available from spring-fed systems in a geographic region could point to a need for investing in water source protection and installation of household water meters to reduce leaks and wastage.
A way forward
To remove some of the barriers to ongoing services monitoring, we recommend a way forward below.
- A percentage of funds (perhaps 3-5%) of each donor’s funding for water, sanitation, and hygiene programs is contributed to a pool for services monitoring each year.
- The funds could be used to monitor a sample of past programs funded by the donors. For example, programs that are 5, 10, and 15 years old. That way we get the learning now and can use it to change programs moving forward.
- Keep the monitoring indicators very basic and in line with government monitoring protocols, where present.
- Development organizations should be responsible for ensuring that services monitoring happens, but should not have to use their own staff. For example, where governments have a robust system of national monitoring, the organization could pull recent, relevant government data.
- Engage an independent auditor to verify a sample of results.
As more services monitoring data become available and accessible, we’ll get past the statistics to specifics, leading to learning, and more effective performance. Thus, people in developing countries will have a better chance at reaping the life-changing benefits of safe water for life.
Editor’s Note: This guest blog post was authored by Brett Walton, a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes the Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. A version of this article originally appeared here and is re-posted with permission.
Official United Nations figures claim that 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. But new research from the University of North Carolina puts the total at more than 4.1 billion people.
As world leaders and grassroots groups discuss how to reduce poverty and improve lives, debates over precise definitions and accurate measurements are taking on a new urgency. The agenda-setting Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, but already new definitions for water, sanitation, and hygiene seek to influence the post-MDG global development agenda.
Last month, the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, challenged official statistics from the United Nations on the number of people without proper toilet facilities: UNC put the figure at 4.1 billion people, compared with 2.5 billion claimed by the United Nations. Both figures assessed conditions in 2010.
The discrepancy between the two sets of sanitation figures comes from different accounting methods. The United Nations measures hardware — the toilet, in this case — and how well it protects the user from immediate contact with the waste. The UNC researchers, on the other hand, approached the question from a public health angle: they also considered hardware, but in a broader sense, by asking whether or not the sewage is treated.
“We looked at public health and the environment beyond just the user,” Rachel Baum told Circle of Blue. Baum is a co-author on the paper, which was published online in January in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Baum and her colleagues wondered, “Is sanitation protecting the wider community?”
More often than not, they found, the answer is no. In 2010, some 4.1 billion people — six out of every 10 people on the planet — did not use toilet facilities that ultimately treat the sewage before it is returned to the environment. (The researchers pulled sewage treatment data from the United Nations Statistics Division, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the European Commission’s Eurostat, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)
This is the second time in less than a year that the Water Institute has challenged WASH statistics from the United Nations. In March 2012, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 1.8 billion people drink unsafe water — a figure that is more than double the 780 million people who lack access to an improved water source, according to the United Nations Joint Monitoring Program’s 2012 update.
Again, the discrepancies come from the way in which the data is collected: the United Nations defines access to drinking water in terms of infrastructure — in other words, the taps, pipes, and wells used to deliver water — rather than water quality, as measured by the Water Institute.
Shaping Things To Come
Last year, the United Nations declared that, according to its metrics, the world had achieved the MDG for drinking water in 2010. The sanitation target is not likely to be achieved, according to an August 2012 update. Both goals sought to halve the proportion of people without access to improved drinking water and sanitation from a 1990 baseline.
The definitions — and the discrepancies between the definitions — of access and quality matter. The United Nations is now discussing which items will comprise the global development program after 2015, when the eight Millennium Development Goals expire.
At stake in the next round of goal-setting is a place in the global-aid pecking order and a chance at the rivers of cash that flow toward the top priorities. Development aid for drinking water and sanitation reached $US 7.8 billion in 2010, and loans to the sector added an additional $US 4.4 billion that year, according to the United Nations.
John Oldfield, the CEO of WASH Advocates, said that priorities are already changing, with less money spent on drilling wells and installing pumps; instead, more cash is being allocated to building maintenance and financial skills within the communities that will manage the water and sanitation projects after the donor leaves.
But John Sauer, head of communications for the Denver-based nonprofit Water for People, said he did not know if the UNC study would lead to a big shift in how money is spent. The broader issue, he told Circle of Blue, is that sanitation coverage is expanding much too slowly, and the progress that has been made is not well monitored, to see if it is sustainable.
Better Outcomes This Time Around
Everyone with a stake in the new order is offering recommendations during the run up to 2015.
On February 21, the United Nations and a handful of its partner organizations issued a press release arguing that the new development goals for water and sanitation should focus on people on the margins: children, women, and those who live in slums or with disabilities.
“The post-2015 agenda must not move forward without clear objectives towards the elimination of discrimination and inequalities in access to water, sanitation, and hygiene,” according to the statement.
Yet, it is still early in the negotiations, and the players are jockeying for position.
“We can’t say at this point what the U.N. will recommend,” Pragati Pascale, communications officer for the United Nations, told Circle of Blue. “There are a lot of discussions going on, trying to hear from many voices.”
February 17 marked the wrap-up of a five-week public consultation on water and sanitation goals, an initiative sponsored by the United Nations and civil society groups. And coming up in May, a star-studded panel — chaired by the leaders of Indonesia, Liberia, and the United Kingdom — will present its assessment of the MDG successes, failures, and inadequacies.
Baum said she hopes that last month’s UNC sanitation study brings more attention to what effective sanitation really is. Meanwhile, Oldfield told Circle of Blue that these types of studies can result in stronger definitions of the problem, in addition to better outcomes.
“This paper will enable stronger policies and it will inform the consultative process,” Oldfield said. “Universal coverage for sanitation is the goal, and this will help us define what exactly we mean by ‘universal coverage.’”