Understanding Your Role Within the Wider WASH Ecosystem

Editors Note: What do we mean when we talk about effective collaboration? In this post, Neil Jeffery, CEO of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), discusses how WSUP uses collaboration as a lens to frame its work and define its role in the broader sector. 


In discussions around how the SDG targets for water and sanitation can be achieved, ‘collaboration’ is often cited as the key: collaboration between the public and private sectors; between NGOs based in the same country; between local service providers and international NGOs; between national governments and multilateral finance institutions; even between funders. And of course this is absolutely correct. The WASH space is constantly evolving, with actors of all shapes and sizes striving to make a contribution: unless these actors proactively coordinate their activities, much of their effort will go to waste.

In WSUP’s view, effective collaboration begins with every organisation understanding their role in the wider WASH ecosystem. What exactly will be your contribution, and what implications does that have for who you choose to collaborate with? How can you structure your activities to achieve maximum impact within your sphere your influence? These are questions that require constant reflection, and in this blog we set out some of WSUP’s thinking on the role that agile and highly specialised WASH organisations can play within the wider sector.

Step one: demonstrate what works

Our organization – Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) – was established to address a specific and growing aspect of the global WASH challenge. The urbanization of developing countries is a leading global trend, with more and more people projected to migrate to urban centers in coming decades. Many of these people have no choice but to move into low-income settlements: since 1990, the number of people living in slum settlements worldwide has increased from 650 million to 863 million. Access to safe water and improved sanitation is failing to keep pace with this explosive growth, and urban WASH service providers are – understandably – struggling to keep up.

WSUP’s contribution begins by forming close partnerships with local service providers and offering technical assistance to help bridge the capacity gap. Take water supply: many urban water utilities are motivated to extend services to low-income areas of the city, but lack knowledge, expertise and support in taking the required steps. Low-income communities have unique characteristics and water supply to these areas can’t be approached in the same way as for the rest of the city. WSUP aims to demonstrate the range of options that are available for a utility in extending services to these areas, encompassing both technological innovations (for example, pre-paid water meters) and innovative organisational and contractual models (for example, setting up a dedicated unit within the utility with responsibility for serving low-income areas, or delegating water supply to these areas to a small-scale private operator). Many utilities will either not be aware of these innovative service delivery models, or will lack the knowledge to implement them effectively. Doing so can have an enormous impact both on the lives of low-income consumers and on the commercial viability of the utility.

In sanitation the capacity gap is arguably even greater: organisations like WSUP have a vital role to play in demonstrating the menu of services required to achieve improved sanitation at scale in low-income urban environments, ranging from improved sanitation facilities (e.g. communal sanitation blocks, as implemented by WSUP and the municipality, CMM, in Maputo) to the provision of complete faecal sludge management (FSM) systems to safely empty, treat and dispose of faecal waste. One example is the FSM service recently established by WSUP and Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC) in the low-income areas of Kanyama and Chazanga – one of the first safe FSM systems to be introduced in Africa that is targeted at and funded by low-income customers.

Step two: take it to scale

We all know that when it comes to providing sustainable water and sanitation solutions, ‘taking it to scale’ is the most challenging part. This is where an organisation like WSUP must at all times remain cognisant of its unique and special role within the wider ecosystem. WSUP is not positioned to directly roll-out service delivery models to millions of low-income consumers. Our role is to demonstrate what is possible at a representative scale within a city, then to target and enable those institutions with A) the mandate and B) the capital to facilitate pro-poor service improvements at the citywide and ultimately the national level. Of course, that means working closely with local businesses and mandated service providers, but it also means working alongside multilateral finance institutions like the World Bank, to bring money into the sector and to improve the targeting of investment.

As WSUP has matured as an organisation, we have understood ever more clearly our place in the wider ecosystem, and the ways in which we can maximise the impact of our activities on the lives of low-income consumers. We believe the improved targeting of IFI investment is a critical component of the urban WASH jigsaw. About US$5 billion is committed annually by the major development banks for urban water and sanitation projects across the world – the majority of which aims to improve access for all citizens of towns and cities – but the reality is that the poorest consumers often don’t benefit. Highly specialised organisations like WSUP have a real contribution to make in supporting the World Bank – and other major funders – to demonstrate ways in which such investments can be designed and delivered which are both commercially viable and pro-poor.

WSUP is already having a significant impact in the area of influencing investment. One example is our partnership with JIRAMA, the national water utility in Madagascar. WSUP has supported JIRAMA in developing a Non-revenue water (NRW) reduction programme in Antananarivo, which has helped strengthen the utility’s revenue generation to the extent that the programme is now being scaled-up to the national level. In addition, the World Bank has seen the impact of JIRAMA’s efforts to extend the water network to low-income urban communities through kiosk connections in Antananarivo, and is now supporting scale-up of the model in a second city, Toliara.

We all have a role to play in coming years as the push towards universal water and sanitation coverage continues. Yes collaboration is key, but we must each begin with a critical analysis of our own offering. We must think laterally and understand the nature of our linkages to other actors in the sector. As an organisation, WSUP is very different to Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company, or to the World Bank – but together we can have quite an impact.