Do we need more innovation? It is one of the values in our new strategy, and the fact that so many people still don’t have decent water and sanitation in the 21st century should call for massive and rapid innovation…shouldn’t it? Well, I have three problems with it.
First, there isn’t much that needs improvement about having a tap connected to mains water and using a toilet that flushes into a sewer. These are services that most people around the world aspire to, and they fulfil people’s right to water and sanitation. Sure, they could be improved – we should use less water, we need to recover nutrients instead of losing them, etc; these ideas are already the focus of many engineers in richer countries.
Second, the main ingredients needed to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage are well known, and, as is common in international development, they are not glamourous: large investments of public money, stronger institutions, better coordination between actors, targeting the most marginalised – i.e. the bread and butter of WaterAid’s advocacy.
Third, and most irritatingly, when we say “innovation”, we often hear “invention”. Barely a week goes by without our technical advisers receiving news of yet another miracle invention that will surely save the problem worldwide. So what is wrong with these?
- They are often point-of-use treatment systems, i.e. water filters, which can be useful in certain conditions (in emergencies, where people really have no choice but to gather water from a river or unsafe well), but often address a small part of the problem. Perfect water quality isn’t as problematic as the distance to the source in rural areas, and its price in cities, and therefore the quantity that people can use for hygiene and sanitation.
- Many inventions are developed by Northern inventors with few ties to local communities or consideration of local markets, and assumptions are made about what people actually want or need. The market studies we conduct always give surprising insights into people’s aspirations and hurdles.
- Many inventions use materials and techniques that are not available in the targeted countries, creating unsustainable supply chains. It is hard enough to have supply chains for sanitary pads and pump parts, let alone water filters or other more complex technology!
Looking beyond product development
I could go on, but enough ranting. We are nowhere near the target of everyone having safe water and sanitation, so we need to do better – and yes, we need innovation. We have to remember that there are many types of innovation beyond just the development of a new product. The SMS service used in Dakar for sludge collection tankers is an exciting example – the technical aspects are interesting, but, for me, the most interesting features are the strong leadership of the sanitation agency ONAS, the market studies that were used to design this new service, and the willingness to work between authorities and private operators. This sort of collaboration is a key innovative behaviour we need to see increasingly.
There are some great technical innovations in our sector, such as pre-paid water meters, simplified sewers, and the Gulper pit-emptying pump, and the lessons of their pilots are always very similar: they only work if they are developed in response to residents’ needs; they need to be led by the local water and sanitation agency or authority; and they are not usually standalone innovations but fit within broader actions towards improving water and sanitation.
Where is innovation needed?
So where do we need innovation? I have a few suggestions:
- Pit emptying: Despite our attempts, we still haven’t found a safe and sustainable way to empty toilet pits and then to transport the sludge to a treatment station. The issue isn’t so much having a better pump or vehicle than finding how to run a sustainable business in that area, and what sorts of toilets would be both easier to empty and attractive to people.
- Sanitation tariffs: Bills aren’t sexy, but they are the main resource utilities have to invest in more infrastructure. There are some ideas from around the world, but an issue is how to keep bills affordable for the poorest people while ensuring their right to good services is fulfilled.
- Monitoring water pumps: We know pumps break often and after just a few years, so can we track their failure and repair rate? Although again there are exciting technological innovations in this area, the real shift needs to be in how data are used by institutions and businesses to keep pumps functioning.
- Making facilities accessible: It has been a long journey to have more accessible toilets in Europe, and there is still much to do. We know the technology needed, but how can we make sure accessible facilities are everywhere more quickly? How do we overcome the joint issues of technology, regulation and endemic inequality?
These are just my ideas – please do suggest other areas in the comments! For instance, perhaps you know of something exciting happening in humanitarian emergencies.
For me, the value of “innovation” isn’t in finding the solution to all water problems worldwide; it is more about persistence and openness, the willingness to try new approaches with an open mind, to sometimes fail and acknowledge it honestly, to learn and adapt and try again. This journey can be as exciting as the last ten years in toilet pit emptying!