What Is Good Enough? Defining a “Basic Service Level” for WASH in Schools

Editors Note: This guest post was authored by Catarina Fonseca, director of WASHCost and economist and Senior Programme Officer at the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. A five-year initiative ending this year, WASHCost has worked with countries to identify the long-term costs of sustaining rural and peri-urban water and sanitation services. This initiative has embedded the concept of life-cycle costing with donors, national and local governments and NGOs, so that services continue to meet national standards reliably for generations. Catarina discusses the challenges of the team’s recent work in Bangladesh.

Catarina testing questionnaires with BRAC team in Mymensing, North Bangladesh. Credit: Catarina Fonseca

Catarina testing questionnaires with BRAC team in Mymensing, North Bangladesh. Credit: Catarina Fonseca

Over the last year, there have been many requests to the WASHCost team to adapt the life-cycle cost approach to other sub-sectors. One of them is WASH in schools. Programme managers and funders want to know the costs for the provision of WASH in schools and how to fund the desired outcomes over at least a 10 year period. 

IRC-International Water and Sanitation Centre has been providing support to the BRAC WASH programme in Bangladesh. BRAC is interested in the life-cycle cost approach to seek improvements in the long-term sustainability of their programmes and in this context, we have taken up the challenge: we have started by searching, discussing and defining what is considered a basic service level for WASH in schools. 

These questions become even more pertinent in the context of the proposals for the global goals in the post-2015 agenda. It has been recognised that future global water, sanitation and hygiene targets must extend beyond household level and include a wide range of settings including schools, workplaces, markets, transit hubs, health centres, etc. Schools and health centres are at the top of the priority list because of the potential health benefits to a large number of children and people. Specifically, handwashing and menstrual hygiene management are considered to be universal priorities to be reached by 2030 so that girls are given the same opportunities and access to education. 

For the work in Bangladesh, our starting point was the WASHCost life-cycle cost methodology, which was developed specifically for rural water and sanitation services in developing countries. Together, with a BRAC team of 15 project and programme officers, over a period of three weeks in June 2013, we developed and tested a service ladder, criteria and indicators for WASH in schools. 

The first step was the development of a draft service ladder for WASH in schools with the key criteria that define a basic level of service. The draft service ladder was developed by the team and based on the international literature, Bangladesh and BRAC standards. The ladder included the following key indicators of services for WASH in schools: access (number of latrines per student), safe use and maintenance, reliability of water for drinking, flushing and handwashing, environmental protection and menstrual hygiene management. 

To get all the information required for the proposed criteria, we ended up with a 16-page questionnaire, which was tested twice in six schools and covered every indicator and sub-indicator required in national and international norms, including questions about how water is collected and accessed, as well as access to facilities by those with disabilities. 

The first challenge started with establishing the benchmark for the most obvious indicator: the number of latrines per student. What is good enough? International experts were consulted and the answers were far from consistent. Therefore we focused on the written literature.

The international standard was developed by WHO in 2009 for schools in low-income settings. The standard recommends one toilet per 25 girls and one toilet plus one urinal for 50 boys. The most important recommendation is that boys’ and girls’ facilities should be in separate toilet blocks or be separated by solid walls and separate entrances. In short, toilets need to provide privacy and security if they are going to be used. This is a very high standard for many developing and developed countries. Even my secondary school in (not so low-income) Lisbon, Portugal would not meet these standards, which one might think of as “aspirational” instead of “good enough”. 

Secondary school girl in Meymensing, Bangladesh. Credit: Catarina Fonseca

Secondary school girl in Meymensing, Bangladesh. Credit: Catarina Fonseca

Looking further, we found out that Bangladesh has actually adopted a national standard in 2011 for WASH in schools. The national standards are “more realistic” and include “1 toilet for 50 children and, when possible, girls’ and boys’ toilets must be completely separated”. Interestingly, “when possible” is not adequate wording for a standard and BRAC took the national norm a step further, closer to the international norm, and adopted “that toilets for boys and girls MUST be separate”. Additionally, a recent innovative study done in Kenya has found considerable difference in the required student to toilet ratios between boys and girls because the time they need to use the toilet also differs. 

From testing the methodology in six primary and secondary schools (both government- and BRAC-supported), we found that the toilet ratio was one toilet for anywhere from 71 to 150 students — all well above the national standard and therefore not considered “a basic level of service”, but closer to “below-standard”. However, all of the toilets were clean; some had excellent menstrual hygiene management facilities available, as well as washing basins, soap and safe drinking water. 

It would seem unfair to label some of these schools as “below standard” especially when interviews with school girls noted that they were happy and using their toilets. However, a monitoring tool is about measuring whether a standard is met. For all schools, it might appear that the standard is not met, but the takeaway for the team is that both the international and the Bangladesh access benchmark for WASH in schools is at the aspirational level. 

The testing has confirmed some other challenges mentioned in a 2012 UNICEF state-of-the-art report of WASH in schools in Bangladesh: that on average there is a toilet for every 130 students and that the majority of facilities is in extensive need of repair (see graph below), making it urgent to deliberate how and who can cover maintenance costs. Interestingly, collecting information about the cost of constructing, maintaining and repairing the latrines, was a rather simple task. Most of the schools track all expenses in their account books, including who funded which component — a topic for another blog. 

WASH in schools Bangladesh, 2012 UNICEF. Source: UNICEF WASH for School Children South Asia Report

WASH in schools Bangladesh, 2012 UNICEF. Source: UNICEF WASH for School Children South Asia Report

Over the next six months BRAC will roll out the methodology in about 100 schools covering a diverse range of settings. We expect the data to inform the final “service ladder” and the methodology will be available early next year. To read the draft methodology and questionnaires, please contact WASHCost@irc.nl