Game changers in water and sanitation: WSUP’s vision for change

Themes: Business Plan Sanitation WASH Water

Highlights from a panel discussion on the challenges and solutions to the water crisis.

On 25th February, WSUP was joined by a panel of experts to discuss the challenges of improving water and sanitation in the backdrop of increasing urbanisation and climate change. Andy Roby, Senior Water Security Adviser at DFID, Liz Lowe, Head of Sustainability at Coca-Cola Great Britain, WSUP’s CEO Neil Jeffery and panel moderator Paul Nuki, Global Heath Security Editor at The Telegraph brought a diverse range of perspectives from the private sector to political economy and governance.

WSUP’s latest business plan demonstrates the need for enhanced partnerships and collaboration between different components of the global system to drive large scale change in urban water and sanitation.

Read the Business Plan.

The event brought together journalists, corporates and NGOs, all united by a shared sense of urgency to improve water and sanitation systems in the face of climate change.

Key takeaways were:

  • The need to vastly increase the reuse of water
  • Urgency and global leadership around the water crisis
  • Practical business models and public-private partnerships

WSUP’s CEO, Neil Jeffery set the scene by highlighting the urban landscape WSUP operates in and the challenges around water in cities. By 2050 the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is expected to increase to 68%. Combined with population growth, we could see another 2.5 billion people in urban areas by 2050, the majority in Asia and Africa. Increasing urbanisation, especially in cities in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia where water and sanitation coverage is already low, poses a significant challenge to achieving SDG 6: water and sanitation for all. In fact, progress towards SDG 6 is declining in many urban areas.

Andy advocated a political economy approach, stating that we need good governance and regulation as a prerequisite to facilitate the flow of investment into water and sanitation. WSUP has been working to do exactly this.

In Kenya WSUP had a transformative impact through working directly with the national water regulator, WASREB, to develop a new key performance indicator (KPI 10) to define the standards of services for every water utility serving low-income urban communities across Kenya. Learn more

WSUP’s work with utilities across Kenya is benefitting fishmongers like Nancy Adhiambo in Nairobi. Photographer: Brian Otieno

The growing impact of climate change

When discussing climate change and water, the need to manage this finite resource more effectively and to elevate the importance of the issue were clear.

Bringing a corporate social responsibility perspective, Liz Lowe from Coca-Cola highlighted how businesses want to be seen to be doing the right thing. She championed nature-based solutions alongside the conservation and regeneration of water, a shared resource, highlighting how businesses need to think about water not just in their own system, but also the wider catchment to shore up resiliency. For example, how is water use at point A affecting the farmer at point B? Looking at the wider catchment, the area of land that water drains through to reach a body of water, will allow us to have a more complete understanding of how water usage at certain point affects the rest of the natural system.

Articulating the dynamics between government and civil society, Andy noted how DFID’s trajectory on climate change is largely dependent on government ministers, who in turn are influenced by public opinion. In the past year public opinion on climate change has transformed with Greta Thunberg and the likes of Extinction Rebellion pushing the issue. Climate change is one of the number one priorities for many investors, but in comparison, very little is spent on downstream water issues and the reuse of water.

WSUP is working to improve wastewater management in cities by a number of means: better risk management, monitoring, treatment of human waste and developing end-to-end sanitation services that collect and treat waste. Learn more.

“When I visit leaders in cities, often the first question they ask is ‘how can I get more water?’”, said Neil. “I tell them you have enough – you’re just not managing it well enough.”

Huge amounts of water are lost through pipe leakages  and for cities in water scarce areas, this is a crucial challenge. The UN states that by 2030 the demand for water is expected to outstrip supply by 40%. It is vital we increase the reuse of waste through wastewater treatment and decrease water loss in the network.

WSUP has been working with JIRAMA, the national water utility in Madagascar to support their capacity to detect and fix leaks in Antananarivo’s water network. Madagascar is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in Africa; preserving this precious resource has never been more urgent.

What’s the game changer?

Global leadership, urgency and business models were all identified as game changers in responding to the complex water and sanitation crisis.

Neil emphasised that the crisis is a systems issue which needs a systems approach with far higher levels of investment, as championed in WSUP’s new business plan. There is strong demand for water and sanitation in cities, but challenges remain around investment.

Creating effective business models for low income customers is very difficult. WSUP’s sanitation waste management service has SWEEP has helped to tackle this issue, blending high-and low-income customers through a subsidy which is built into the business model.

Watch: how SWEEP is providing an affordable and sustainable pit emptying service.

Rani Begum from Rangpur, Bangladesh is benefitting from SWEEP, the public-private pit emptying service created by WSUP.

The importance of water as a finite resource was highlighted by Liz, who stated that water underpins everything, yet is still taken for granted in much of the world. There is a lack of urgency in responding to the issue. Businesses need to feel a sense of urgency around water to foster faster collaboration and public-private collaboration is essential.

On a similar note, Andy highlighted that whilst the annual World Water Week in Stockholm is crucial for discussion in the sector, there is not yet enough global leadership on the water crisis. When will water have its ‘David Attenborough’ moment to flip the issue?

To learn more about WSUP’s vision for change and how we plan to reach 50 million people by 2050, read our new business plan.