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1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?
Undoubtedly this is the challenge of changing the way we work. For decades ‘aid’ to the sector — most especially the rural sub-sector — has been delivered largely through the provision of infrastructure in short-term, cyclical interventions which solve an immediate problem, but leave many others unanswered. NGOs, charities, foundations, and even large donor grant programs and loans have delivered a lot of hand pumps, tapstands, and toilets, but have been much less successful at delivering permanent water or sanitation services. If national WASH sectors in the South are to truly move forward, our support must address the entire ‘eco-system’ of service delivery. This is particularly true as the donor world becomes more complex, as lower income countries move to be lower-middle income countries, and as expectations for services rise — as they rightly should. The challenge of ‘tomorrow’ for many in the developing economies is going to be household level piped supplies, not yesterday’s point source handpumps, and we should be ready to meet this.
2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.
As part of the sustainable services at scale initiative in Ghana managed by IRC of the Netherlands, we have been working with the government’s Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA) to address some of these systemic weaknesses and gaps in the rural water sector. This has involved intensive work to better understand the structural problems behind poor functionality of water supply systems and really attacking some of the most pressing solutions: a new legal instrument for CWSA, improved policy and implementation guidelines, better monitoring, and a truly comprehensive vision of what rural (water) services should provide. This has meant working with a range of institutions and organizations, including donors, many with vested interests in the current arrangements. After three years of intensive work at national, regional, and district levels, we are starting to see a growing consensus and demand for real change which is very encouraging.
The lessons I take from this experience are that this is a process that takes time; there are no quick fixes. Secondly, sector dynamics are often messy, but if the space can be created to reflect on what is going wrong and where the solutions might lie, it is possible to bring diverse stakeholders with competing agendas on board. Finally, we know that this process is not cheap, but compared to the relatively huge scale of resources being channeled into sector investments, it is affordable and absolutely necessary.
3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?
I believe that ‘project ownership’ by communities is a flawed concept. Much of what has been promoted as ‘community management’ by projects in the past has often been based on a very shaky understanding of national sector policy and legislation. It assumes firstly that communities are legally able to take on the ‘project’ assets (the pumps, concrete, and tapstands, latrines, etc.), but this is often not the case, is unclear, or is contested. Secondly there is the assumption that (rural) communities have the wherewithal, capacity, and desire to manage their own systems. Twenty years of experience have shown us that this works for some, but that for many communities these two assumptions are wildly optimistic and deeply flawed.
Sustainability of services can only be ensured by having competent operators (community, public, or private — I am agnostic on the modality, but it must be relevant to the context), good long-term support and monitoring, clear legislation, and financing frameworks to address regular short-term and longer-term capital maintenance costs. This is where we need to put our efforts.
4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?
Unfortunately I am a bit of a Luddite and still have a ‘dumb phone’, but even I can see that telemetry, in aspects such as system monitoring with data flows either by SMS or internet enabled phone systems, is a game changer. These technologies can result in reduced travel and costs and empower users to monitor their own services and demand improvements. I am, however, concerned that all the noise and fuss created by these very clever technologies can at times detract from some of the fundamental principles behind their use — who has access to this information? How is it used? And, ultimately, will it result in improved performance and better, more sustainable services? We should not lose sight of these issues in all the techno-hype and flashy maps.
5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?
What I like are several interesting sites, including the newly revised Sustainable WASH, which includes a great resource database, Water For People’s Everyone Forever campaign, as well as our own site at Water Services That Last. But beyond these new places, we shouldn’t forget some of the Golden Oldies like USAID’s old Environmental Health Project and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, both of which have a lot of great in-depth reports and analysis. We should always try to avoid reinventing the wheel!