September 25, 2015 HealthSociety

How Many People Does it Take to Deliver Universal Access to Water and Sanitation?

The short answer is, until recently we didn’t know. Despite not having an adequate evidence base to inform public and private utilities of how many people or what skills were required, at national level the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sectors in many countries have been bombarded with capacity development initiatives.

I wondered a long time about this when I got involved in the IWA Human Resource Capacity Gaps Study. When we started to summarise the full assessment reports, and synthesis the human resource trends across five countries at the end of Phase 1 of the study, a different human resources landscape emerged.

It was troubling to see how little organisations knew about their staff. Lack of segregated data and inability to report total numbers of staff per organisation were not uncommon. The collected data on human resources in the water and sanitation sector are so scarce that many countries don’t know or understand existing capacity, let alone what the future demand will look like to enable universal access.

When I started working for IWA back in 2009, my first acquaintance with the sector was through the Operation and Maintenance Network ( This network promotes the need for O&M in the water and sanitation sector. In just a few days I was convinced that the solutions to the lack of access and other problems in the sector lay more with the people that manage, operate and maintain the infrastructure, than the infrastructure itself.

I have read so many articles and stories about failure of new water and sanitation infrastructure within the first 5 years of its existence, I am positive that capital investment will only become cost-effective if investment in capacity development is addressed. Investment in capacity is not politically attractive due to lack of tangible and easy to measure results. This, however, does not mean it should not be a priority. Moreover we need to know what our capacity gaps are in order to do this productively.

How do we know what capacity to build and where to invest our money?

After making these discoveries, I was eagerly anticipating initiating the second phase of an additional ten country human resource (HR) assessments to identify what capacity currently exists; understand the future demand and supply; and gain insight into where financial investments might make the greatest impact. In this phase I worked with six country research teams directly in Africa and, through the International WaterCentre, with four teams in Asia.

The initiation of the research proved to be extremely vital, as some countries indicated that this was the first time the combination of WASH sector, education sector and government ministries had sat around the same table. Considering that financial resources are low in many developing economies, this could be a first step towards the concept of sharing human resources and coordinating planning and development of HR more effectively together. I realised that this had potential to be a way of municipal districts sharing qualified WASH staff across districts.

Whilst the process of data collection remained difficult because of lack of HR databases and sensitivity in sharing information, this is a crucial element in understanding the future trends that support the planning of capacity development activities. The organisations and research teams had problems categorising someone as a professional/non-professional, regardless of detailed instructions. A person without qualifications still performing the job is according to the methodology not a professional, even if he or she has been doing the job of a professional, sometimes for many years. As they are without qualifications, it is considered a capacity gap because they will still need to gain the correct qualifications.

The actual analysis was conducted across 15 countries. It suggests that many countries may need to double their existing capacity in the coming years, and further develop their skills to support the attainment of universal access. Only through National HR assessments will we ever be able to know how many people and what competencies and skills it takes to deliver universal access to water and sanitation.