40 years in the global WASH sector: what have we learnt?

Themes: Sanitation WASH

By Bill Peacock, who retired as Director of Programmes at WSUP in March 2018

My 40 years in the global water, sanitation and hygiene sector have been (for the main part!) enjoyable and rewarding.  I have seen some good interventions in the sector, alongside too many examples of unsustainable investment. The current generation has a huge opportunity to drive change and make a difference – but only if we absorb key lessons and avoid repeating mistakes. In this piece I set out 7 key insights related to urban water and sanitation service provision for the sector to take forward.

1. A different approach to master planning

Long term planning is a fundamental requirement for the provision of citywide water supply and sanitation services – yet we are still producing plans which fail to be delivered. One reason is the tendency to approach the exercise from a technical perspective, rather than financial and economic affordability considerations. For example, planners develop blueprints for extending citywide sewerage systems, only to find the plan is unaffordable, necessitating a step-by-step approach to implementation against unattainable levels of investment.  The result is that in many cases, only the first phase of the plan is completed –  typically centralised sewerage systems serving the business centre of the city and a few more affluent residential areas – with low-income areas missing out entirely.

A more pragmatic approach would be to first agree on the investment level available over a 20- or 30-year period, then work backwards to identify service options which can realistically be delivered to ensure acceptable services for everyone living, working in and visiting the city. That may mean that 75 or 80% of some cities are served by on-site sanitation systems – but experience has shown the alternative of bulk sewerage to low-income areas is unlikely to materialise, even where planned for.

2. Quality sanitation provision comes in different forms

A reliance on sewerage systems speaks to a wider mindset, which views on-site sanitation as de facto a poor level of service. This thinking has contributed to a situation whereby billions of people are still not receiving safe sanitation services, decades after the world agreed that this was no longer acceptable. While traditional sewerage systems clearly have a role to play, we must embrace the fact that quality sanitation services can be provided through a variety of techniques and technologies, including decentralised systems and container-based sanitation – the latter providing a safe and hygienic solution which can be implemented rapidly at low capital cost.


Chamanculo sanitation block, Maputo

Communal Sanitation Block in Chamanculo, Nlhamankulu district, Maputo.

A welcome shift in mindset is already occurring towards shared toilets which must be continued. Every family would like its own toilet – but what if that family has only one room to live in on a compound shared with other families? Those families must not be left behind because global performance measures suggest that only an individual toilet per family really counts. We will be doing these communities a disservice unless we accept shared sanitation as a practical solution in the densely populated low-income areas of many cities, and focus our efforts on ensuring these needs are met at an acceptable standard.

3. Enabling and enforcing realities

Citywide service provision requires a mix of actors, particularly in sanitation. We have an opportunity to engage the private sector, but this takes time and a considered approach.  Currently there is a tendency to engage private sector support in the hope it will provide a quick fix, without first addressing critical barriers to formal private sector participation.

A pit latrine emptying business in Kisumu

A pit latrine emptying business in Kisumu

Take faecal sludge management (FSM) as an example: in many low-income areas, private operators using appropriate, safe operating practices cannot compete with lower-cost, informal businesses which cut costs by working unsafely, often at night. Our first concern must be to raise standards all round by assisting authorities to establish regulations, and no less importantly, the knowledge and capabilities to enforce them. In many cities this represents a significant change which takes time to achieve – but the private sector will then be able to fulfil its role.

4. Different ways of measuring success

Parts of the sector are still driven by how many people will directly benefit (“beneficiaries”) from an investment, despite the clear limitations of this metric for gauging the long-term effectiveness of interventions. We must strive for a model where “Direct beneficiaries” act as a catalyst by demonstrating what can be done to reach citywide scale in a sustainable way. Interventions of course bring immediate benefits to individuals, and this is hugely significant; however, what really counts is how they achieve wider impact and support the provision of long-lasting change, enabling many more people to benefit in the future.

In short, we should judge an intervention by its capacity to achieve scale and catalyse change at the city, national and global level.  There are many talented people working in the sector whose speciality is how to measure success: my challenge to them is to develop new metrics which convey those wider impacts simply and effectively. And my challenge to funders in the sector is to reconsider what success looks like to them. Counting direct beneficiaries alone will not help the world to meet the SDGs.

5. Institutional capacity as the primary requirement for sustainability 

There are many definitions of the word “sustainability” and when asked for a definition, different people say different things – focusing for example on economic, financial, and environmental aspects. While all these aspects are critical, I have come to believe that in the specific context of water and sanitation, the one that matters most is the capacity and capability of service providers to deliver services that are long-lasting and resilient to change.

I have encountered many projects with good initial outcomes for the people being served, but which have not concentrated adequately on ensuring that the institutions, policies, systems and regulations are sufficiently developed to ensure that outcome is sustained. To be successful, we must begin with sustainable systemic change – sustainable services will follow.

6. The real experts are on the ground

Global actors have a role to play in helping to deliver sustainable change. However, it is the people on the ground who will drive progress towards citywide service provision. Even if many of them may not have direct experience of living in low-income communities, they have still lived and worked alongside those communities, and possess direct cultural understanding and affinity for the challenges they face.

Well-meaning international organisations will only be effective if they recognise this reality, and find ways of providing transient support to such people. The objective of building institutional capacity benefits from constant attention that can only be provided by confidants who are readily available for consultation. While international expertise and support can help in this regard, it is local colleagues whose work is more likely to result in systemic change.

7. The need to be bold

Huge progress has been made over the last 30 years towards the universal provision of safe water supply and sanitation services and hygiene behaviour change in the face of inexorable growth in low income urban populations. However, the world fell short of the MDG targets by some distance: in this regard we failed low-income people in many places, and norms persist in the sector which must be challenged. So what is required to achieve change at scale?

Water kiosk in Linda, Lusaka

Water kiosk in Linda, Lusaka

Decision makers need to be bolder. They must cast a critical eye and ask what needs to be done differently. Delivering all-encompassing citywide change to eradicate slums will take many generations in many countries. The people living in those slums cannot wait so long for their water supply, sanitation and hygiene standards to be made safe and secure. Even delivering this within a generation will be challenging – but it can be achieved through bold and appropriate decision-making, particularly by influential people in the most affected countries.