March 19, 2015 Society

The Case For Tackling the Human Capacity Gap in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

This year’s World Water Day theme shines a light on sustainability in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). In the past 35 years, two International Decades on Water have been proclaimed (1981-1990 & 2005-2015), yet half the world’s population still lacks access to safe drinking water or sanitation. We will soon herald in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2015-2030, with an expected high-level goal on water and sanitation. What have we learned?

Can we achieve sustainability in WASH fifteen years from now? What will it take?

Sustainability in water, sanitation and hygiene services means that people must want these services enough that they are willing to act either individually or collectively; and will invest the time and money that it takes to ensure that adequate services are in place, functioning effectively and being used by each person for the indefinite future. It means that water, sanitation and hygiene are linked to each other and to individuals’ health.

CAWST has learned from 14 years’ experience working with our 800 clients in 68 countries that the following three key components need to be in place for sustainability in WASH programs:

Create and sustain demand. Long-term technology adoption and behaviour change relies on households wanting and valuing the changes offered by WASH programs. Achieving this is challenging for implementers, as it requires time, sustained investment and a range of strategies.
Supply of products and services. Provide technical options (“hardware”) to meet the demand, and accompany these with appropriate training and support (“software”) to ensure successful adoption and proper, consistent, long-term use.
Monitor and continuously improve. Good monitoring systems gather important information on the process, end product, service, practice and impact. It has a clearly defined purpose, collects relevant information, is fully integrated into the program, is simple and within the means of the organization, is analyzed at regular intervals, is focused on factors within complete control of the program and, most importantly, results in program modifications and improvements.
In each of the components above, two factors are essential to successful planning and implementation:

Human capacity. There are a number of key players who need to be able to function independently and effectively with each other, whether within one organization or more commonly across multiple organizations. Building competency and capacity in these roles is essential.
Financing. While there are no fixed models for program financing there are several lessons that have been learnt through field implementation of WASH. These include:
Users need to pay for their own long-term operation and maintenance whereas initial capital costs can (and in some cases should) be subsidized.
Creating the enabling environment, raising awareness, education and capacity building for WASH are almost always a public sector activity, and highly subsidized.
Varying scales of funding are needed, including for often-neglected smaller implementers, to scale-up WASH via thousands of independent small and large WASH projects.
All of these sustainability components hinge on having human resources in place, with the right knowledge and skills. We must therefore first tackle the massive shortage in the number of local WASH sector workers and their skills.

The case for the impact of the human capacity gap on WASH sustainability was bolstered late last year with the release of the International Water Association (IWA) report, “An Avoidable Crisis: WASH Human Resource Capacity Gaps in 15 Developing Economies”, and UN-Water’s Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) report.

Taken together, the reports paint a stark picture. The IWA report found that 787,200 WASH professionals are needed to reach universal coverage in the 10 countries studied.

Efforts to address the shortage are hampered by chronic under-funding of capacity development, as evidenced by the GLAAS report’s finding that less than one per cent of WASH funding commitments made in 2012 were directed at education and training.

Essentially, capacity development is not contained to formal education or to a single training workshop. It is an ongoing process of professional development, grounded in short courses, coaching, and mentorship providing “just in time” learning when needed/as needed.

It won’t be easy, but it’s doable, and it takes time. Our experience has shown that a long-term commitment to building local capacity is the only way to achieve sustainable WASH services.

Together, we can turn a vision for sustainability in WASH into a reality, so that in 2030 we are able to look back on 15 years of meaningful, sustainable progress.

Shauna Curry

CEO, CAWST Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology