Fifth WASH Sustainability Forum, tipping point in the sustainability debate?

Editors 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.

Carmen da Silva Wells, programme officer at IRC

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.