Sustainable WASH in Conflict Zones

Editors Note: This guest blog post was co-authored by Erin Boettcher, Director of Program Excellence & Strategic Partnerships at Arc Solutions, and Adrienne Lane, Director of Development at Water for Good. In their post, Erin and Adrienne describe both organizations’ efforts in providing long-term WASH solutions in conflict areas. Stressing sustainability in WASH strategy, they highlight the importance of maintaining existing infrastructure, building local capacity, and identifying areas in which need is greatest.

The 2015 Millennium Development Goal for water access has been met, but the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations still lack improved access. Among the remaining 768 million people, populations living in conflict zones face distinct obstacles to safe drinking water including displacement, damage to infrastructure, and security threats. Common WASH responses in conflict settings involve temporary relief efforts that save lives. However, there is also a need for long-term WASH solutions, especially where low levels of water access existed before the crisis.

Students in Mogadishu enjoy clean drinking water at their school as a result of an Arc Solutions project. Credit: Arc Solutions

Students in Mogadishu enjoy clean drinking water at their school as a result of an Arc Solutions project. Credit: Arc Solutions

Water for Good has worked in the Central African Republic (CAR) for 10 years and has continued operations over the past year and a half as CAR has descended into civil war. Arc Solutions is committed to providing WASH services exclusively in conflict zones, working in Somalia for the past two years. Recently, our organizations have partnered on hand pump maintenance and community health trainings in CAR. We would like to share lessons we have learned working in WASH, where our goal has been to be attentive to the local context and to address underlying, long-term development needs.

Approaches to WASH development in conflict zones

1. Prevent the deterioration of existing infrastructure

In war-torn countries, water providers struggle to maintain WASH infrastructure. In rural areas, rehabilitating hand pumps is a common relief response and we participate in this work in CAR. Water for Good and Arc Solutions are also working to provide handpump maintenance for a network of 1,000 water pumps in CAR. Local maintenance teams travel to pumps on a regular basis, providing performance checks and minor repairs to manage the lifecycle costs of the pumps, preventing downtime and the premature need for rehabilitations.

2. Support resiliency of local institutions

July 24th, 2014, Water for Good team drilled a 278 ft deep borehole at St. John of Galabadja parish in Bangui, CAR, where thousands of displaced people are seeking protection. Credit: Water for Good

July 24th, 2014, Water for Good team drilled a 278 ft deep borehole at St. John of Galabadja parish in Bangui, CAR, where thousands of displaced people are seeking protection. Credit: Water for Good

Amid conflict, strategic investments in the expansion of sustainable WASH access can shore up and support local institutions that assist displaced families. In the last two months in CAR, local Catholic missions have co-funded 18 well-drilling projects for their compounds, where tens of thousands of displaced people reside. In Somalia, we have partnered with schools where the leadership takes ownership of the water project, including upkeep and maintenance. These types of projects serve the immediate needs of conflict-affected people and increase the ability of local institutions to support the population after conflict subsides.

3. Respond to protracted conflict

In Somalia, 70% of the population does not have proper access to water and temporary relief cannot be expected to sufficiently meet these widespread, long-term needs. Arc Solutions supports sustainable WASH projects currently reaching almost 10,000 people.

Lessons learned

1. Build local partnerships

Leyla Hassan, Arc Solutions Program Excellence Officer, collects information at a project site in Mogadishu. Credit: Arc Solutions

Leyla Hassan, Arc Solutions Program Excellence Officer, collects information at a project site in Mogadishu. Credit: Arc Solutions

Both of our organizations have found it to be critically important to operate through local staff and partner organizations. This is desirable in most contexts, but is essential in the midst of conflict. Foreign staff will likely be evacuated or hyper-restricted in their travel. The greater the capacity for local project management and implementation, the greater prospects are for the success of the project.

In CAR, Water for Good spent nine years recruiting and training over 100 local staff, establishing administrative offices in two cities (Bangui and Berberati), two full-service garages, two drilling teams, and four handpump maintenance teams.  The other firms left the country or lost capacity to drill once the war started, in part because they could not ensure the safety of their international staff and assets.

2. Anticipate and manage risks

Appropriate risk mitigation measures vary across contexts. However, we take the stance that international philanthropic organizations ought to take risks and provide capital and technical assistance to places where market-based and government-led resources are lacking.

In Somalia, Arc Solutions relies upon a local security partner to help determine project locations. Although risk cannot be completely eliminated, security vetting by a trusted partner can help us to choose locations with a higher likelihood of achieving sustainability. In addition, we seek to implement cost-effective projects, which make good use of resources and reduce financial risk if a project is damaged or destroyed.

3. Gauge prospects for sustainability

In the midst of conflict it is hard to know what local financial, administrative, and technical resources will remain available to maintain WASH infrastructure. Both of our organizations have had to ask questions about the status, dependability, and associated costs of local markets and supply chains that provide essential components for implementing and maintaining WASH projects. In response, we have connected local staff/partners to international supply chains and we provide ongoing logistical and financial support.

Water for Good hand pump functionality map, based on maintenance team’s on-site reporting. Interactive map available here.

Water for Good hand pump functionality map, based on maintenance team’s on-site reporting. Interactive map available here.

In CAR, there is low availability of basic parts required in the country and rural well committees have low capacity to maintain their wells. We have connected local staff with the India and Vergnet hand pump suppliers, creating a system for materials management and setting up a professional pump repair and maintenance program.

In countries with low state capacity and active conflict, sustainable WASH plays a critical role in bolstering civil society, maintaining infrastructure, and supporting displaced populations. While we recognize the value of emergency relief efforts, we wanted to share our experiences working to meet the long-term WASH needs of vulnerable communities in conflict zones. If you have questions about our work, please contact Adrienne Lane of Water for Good at alane@waterforgood.org or Erin Boettcher of Arc Solutions at erinboettcher@ilovearc.org.