sanitation, hygiene, WASH

Building Poltical Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Building Political Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

There is quite a bit going on in the world of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) right now.  Not only did World Water Day recently highlight the importance of managing and recycling wastewater, two big things happened in the area of political will.  One, the 2017 GLAAS (UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water ) report highlighted the fact that although funding is increasing in the sector, 80% of countries report inadequate funding for the sector.  Two, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meetings (HLM) of ministers recently met to discuss how to build solid WASH sectors, with effective institutions, capacity, planning, policy, and financing.

In terms of institutions and capacity, I would urge anyone to read the recent IDS Bulletin on decentralization and service delivery.  While discussions of service delivery governance can get quite academic, there are numerous articles in here that speak to practical, concrete issues that face institutions that facilitate WASH service delivery.  Specifically, I would suggest reading the two papers on metropolitan and municipal district authorities (MMDAs) in Ghana- one on taxation and clientelism and the other on staff quality.

Finances, as you might expect, are just as critical as strong institutions.  When I speak of finance, I am talking about more than just donor and government funding, including the taxes and tariffs that support effective operation and maintenance of WASH facilities.  There are countless examples of failure in the sector due to lack of cost recovery (feel free to ask me, and I could send you dozens of examples).

While there is always talk of the separate worlds of academics and NGOs (and I learned this all too well during my PhD thesis on urban water governance)  effective discussions of and improvements in institutions and finance are what is needed right now.  In a recent article at WRI’s City Fix blog, I make the argument that accountability and affordability are the main drivers of access.  Simply put, poor people in Africa and Asia often do not have access to water or sanitation services because they are either too poor to afford the service or the government does not provide (using tax revenues).  Water, for example, is neither equally distributed across the earth nor is drinking water handed out to people.  It should be thought of as a service, rather than a good in most cases.  What is needed are more serious political economy analyses of water and sanitation that bridge the gap between academics and the policy crowd (here is a good example).

call from Matt Damon for more funding in the sector is helpful, in that a celebrity is able to reach a wide, global and general audience.  Nevertheless, banging one’s fist on the table and saying what should be done is not enough without an understanding the systems of institutions and finance that drive change.









water, cities, political economy, governance, access to water

Apples and Oranges: Acknowledging Intra-Urban Complexity of Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

I recently read an excellent paper on comparisons of infrastructure within cities (as opposed to the more frequent between/among city comparisons that are made in both the academic literature and the policy world.  As someone who appreciates water policy discussions at the intersection of academia and the real world, this was an enjoyable read.

In this paper, Colin McFarlane, Jonathan Silver & Yaffa Truelove discuss some of the factors within Delhi, Cape Town, and Mumbai that drive access to infrastructure services.  Many of these factors come as no surprise to a human geographer- political connections, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, and income.  Inequality of access within a city is certainly what I saw in my doctoral research in Dar es Salaam. In fact, I have seen situations in my hometown of Everett, Massachusetts (Greater Boston) where the ability of local businesses to contest chronically overcharging of water and sewer bills is dependent upon favoritism and access to the right people in the city public works department.

So, what are the implications for the real world?  

I believe that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals should look to this “radical shift”  that was recently highlighted on the World Bank’s Water Blog that calls for the policy world to think about WASH within the context of urban governance and city-level service provision, address issues of accountability and transparency, improve supply chains, train city leaders, and provide clear roles and responsibility.  

This is, of course, not an easy endeavor, not only due to weaknesses in the factors above, but also since city-level leaders in many countries still operate in a very centralized power structure in which ministry/cabinet-level decisions dominate.  What I see, therefore is a disconnect- between the need for local accountability and transparency in service delivery and the decentralized and empowered municipal governments who would be able to do this.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.




water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

What’s Behind Rio’s Water and Wastewater Woes?

On top of the Russian doping scandal and the Zika virus fears,  the world has become shocked and worried by the water quality situation for the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Rio De Janeiro.  Numerous articles have come out with jarring statements like the following:

 The first results of the study published over a year ago showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the United States or Europe. At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation …”

There are both bacterial and viral water issues.

Recent news reports have shown the level of fecal coliform colonies to be 400 per 100 milliliters (ml.), which is more than ten times the EPA standard of 35/100 ml. for marine water swimming.  (As an other guideline, the WHO states the risk of gastrointestinal illness for swimming in water with levels of  40 /100 ml. to be approximately 1%).

On top of the bacterialogical concerns is the issue of viral pathogens.  Ninety percent (90%) of sites tested in a 16 month long study in the waters around Rio De Janeiro found the presence of viral pathogens called bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria).  Although there is no water quality standard for these pathogens, they are associated with human illnesses such as gastroenteritis.

The sources of this problem are well-known.  Rio’s Guanabara Bay is the recipient of nearly endless amounts of untreated wastewater and solid waste and local canals pass through unhygienic “favelas” (shanty towns) and industrial areas.  This problem, as WaterAid has recently rightly stated, should be put in context of a global set of urban water and wastewater challenges, and should be a call to action to improve health in Rio and similar cities across the globe.

What I would like to suggest in this post is that this problem exists and persists not just because of the real challenges of urbanization, economic development, poverty, urban planning, technology, and costs, but also due to government priorities and a lack of accountability to citizen demand to address this problem.    


For example, while early plans at the time of the awarding of the Olympic games to the city, slated for the development of seven waste treatment plants, only one was built.  Other solutions have also been suggested, including numerous dredging and waste picking/reuse projects and the development of constructed wetlands, but very little of this has materialized.  Mismanagement and bureaucratic infighting has been an issue, but so have protests in the informal settlements/favelas of the city about evictions and resettlement in advance of the Olympics.  Even more worrying is a recent Bloomberg report of the murder of Executive Coordinator of the Environmental Sanitation Program for the Guanabara Bay Area (this is something so bad that I do not care to speculate further on this).

These problems, this neglect, and conflict, rooted in class and economics, certainly existed before the run-up to the Olympic games, and aiming to paper over the extraordinary challenging economic and environmental problems in the city during the time of the Olympics is shameful.  Forced displacement is before the Olympics is unfortunately not rare, as we saw this ahead of the Beijing games.

With a backdrop full of chaos that includes a nearly impeached president, a bankrupt state government,  and most recently, protests of the Olympic Games themselves, it is critical to take Rio De Janeiro’s corruption and government accountability challenges seriously when asking what’s behind their water and wastewater problems.  It would be real progress if the spotlight on these social and environmental challenges led to serious improvements, but, in order to do so, we cannot forget that environmental problems are social and environmental problems.


water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Seeing WASH Trends – Thoughts on the IRC 2016-2025 WASH Trend Report

As a WASH researcher who has read more project and program evaluations than I care to admit, I find it to be a rare pleasure to read a broad sector trends analysis document that can see the forest for the trees.  The IRC Trends Analysis, 2016-2015 report is such a report.  While I do have specific critiques of the report, it does a solid job of outlining major trends that will have major effects on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services for the under-served world. Briefly noting trends in economic growth and inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, governance, the aid landscape, domestic finance, information and communication technologies (ICT), persisting service and access gaps, and service delivery models, this report both acknowledges progress and future needs.  Some of my criticisms are really not criticism of approach per se, but criticism of detail.  If anything, I believe that each section warrants its own analysis.

In terms of economic growth, I think it’s critical to develop further an emphasis on economic growth and inequality. Anyone who has ever lived in a developing country city has seen the stark differences between how the middle and upper classes live and how the other half (more than half, really) live.  What’s really needed is a discussion that goes beyond country-level statistics and Gini Coefficients and the identification of specific ways in which interventions that build wealth at the lowest rungs of society and reduce inequality can improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.  Case studies of successful informal settlement upgrading and tenure reform are clearly relevant here. Research papers from Plan International and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) have noted the importance of tenure to sanitation, for example.

Urbanization is a clear trend that this report rightly identifies, as it is a pronounced trend in the poorest countries of the world.  While one can debate whether limited funds in a given country should be focused on the areas of lowest access (rural areas, generally) or towards the areas of most rapidly increasing need (urban areas), I think that the linkages between rural and urban areas can provide some insight.  For example, one perspective on household income and ability to improve rural household sanitation infrastructure (an idea I heard while doing sanitation sector research at the WSP last year) is the idea of harnessing urban-rural remittances– in the cases where children of existing rural households have moved to the city and can help their parents fund latrines or other sanitary improvements at their rural home.

I found the section of water scarcity to be a bit too simplistic for its usefulness.  Water at the scale of agriculture is quite different conceptually from drinking water.  The narrative of water scarcity is all too often mischaracterized at the level of most advocacy messaging.  The Malthusian notion of not enough water for too many people is misleading when the realities are more driven by inefficiencies, mismanagement, and misallocation.  Reliable access to water has more to do with effective utilities, accountable governmental provision, and affordability in public and private supply regimes.  Poorly managed water resource management at the national or basin level is another ball of wax.

The section on governance is one that I feel had some thoughts in the correct direction, but would need a whole lot more detail.  [I admit to being biased, as I did a PhD on water governance.]  I believe that one must start with the notion embedded in most basic conceptualizations of water service delivery models for the poor (the 2004 World Bank World Development Report, for example) that affordability and accountability are central to any discussion of water governance.  Simply citing a country-wide Democracy Index or even the more useful Corruptions Perception Index is way too simplistic.  I would make the argument that government decentralization and the effective regulation of the private sector are the most effective starting points when discussing what sort of water governance regime exists in a given country.  One great recent example of such a discussion is by Johanna Koehler at Oxford.

Additionally, I feel that the topic of information and communication technologies (ICT) can be linked to discussions of both management and governance, as the collection of data on infrastructure is step one.  Governments and other actors responding to these identified needs is the second step of any monitoring plan.

I believe that this report did hit the topics of aid effectiveness and utility finances pretty well.  The authors rightly pointed to an overall them of short-term goals and programming that often resulted in a lack of long term effectiveness.  Poor tariff collection and the difficulty to finance rural WASH initiatives are perennial challenges as well.

In summary, I find these sorts of trend analysis exercise to be useful.  I would love to see broad lessons in both individual program evaluations and sector analyses acted upon, but these are challenges of a much greater scale.





water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Sanitation and Hygiene Institutional Policies in Africa: Review of SEI Report on Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania

Rather than stay up at the 10,000 foot level of analysis of some of my previous posts, today I’d like to focus down on a recent report from the Stockholm Environment Institute that highlights some major concerns that exist in terms of the enabling environment in Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania for investments in sanitation and hygiene.

The report assesses enabling environments in each of these three countries in terms of institutional roles and responsibilities, legal frameworks, effective targeting of populations in need, service levels, environmental and health issues, and in terms of finances.

Institutional commonalities of all countries surveyed in this report include a general tendency towards centralized/ministerial policy development with limited local capacity.  Horizontal coordination across ministries was noted as a concern in all three countries, as there sometimes were confused roles and responsibilities.  Vertical coordination down to the local/community level was also identified as an issue.  There were some bright spots in the report, as institutional strengthening, decentralization, and a general movement towards community level ownership and operation.  Furthermore, each of the three countries have made recent moves to clarify policy through Sector Wide Approaches, or SWAps.

Perhaps the most salient point in the whole report was the recognition that in all three countries there was no clear separation between service delivery and the regulation, monitoring, & evaluation.  This is of critical concern, as the presence of separate regulatory bodies can, at least in theory, hold feet to the fire, so to speak.

On a related note, there was a noted disconnect in all three countries between stated targeting at the policy level and actual budget allocation.   The identified a lack of legal framework specifically focused on sanitation and hygiene in all surveyed countries muddies the waters further.

Lastly, the report correctly notes that technical specifications were often identified, without a particular focus on functionality or effectiveness.

While I have not worked in all three of these countries, much of this is quite consistent with what I learned while reviewing sanitation and hygiene policy in Tanzania last year with the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP)’s Scaling up Rural Sanitation initiative.   There, I saw a country that is making strides in terms of clarifying roles horizontally and moving towards decentralized responsibilities.

Reports like this that focus on the enabling environment in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are critical to the effectiveness any and all sector programming.  Global efforts that help countries improve sector coordination and implementation, such as the Sanitation and Water for All program, the Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water (GLAAS)  program, and the Tracking Financing to Drinking-water, Sanitation and Hygiene (TrackFin) initiative, are critical pieces of WASH sector policy effectiveness.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Talking Shit: Translating Sanitation and Hygiene from Discourse to Details

It has been an on-and-off trend in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector to Talk Shit in order to move the dial forward in terms of access to sanitation.  In 2008, for example, The Year of Sanitation had this forceful message to use the word shit in order to spur change.  Same thing with the well-received “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”

After the advocacy community is rightfully reinforcing the importance of access to sanitation and motivating donors and governments to budget more to the WASH sector, the time comes to acknowledge the complexity that’s necessary and translate from clear and concise advocacy messaging to muddy, wonky, and often intractable challenges that show up in design and implementation phasesThese include some of the difficult, grinding realities – such as poverty and/or lack of affordability, the lack of incentives to invest in sanitation, the lack of soap and water for necessary hygiene, unaccountable governments, market imperfections, etc.

As an example, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) and other behavior change interventions are often paired with latrine building initiatives.  The perfectly logical idea is that once you build increased demand, you help build the supply to meet it and then connect the two.

In this regard, a really useful study on the effectiveness of such sanitation and hygiene initiatives came out of Plan International in 2013.  It showed that ‘slippage’, or reverting back to open defecation went from 13% to 92% once the criteria for slippage were changed from simply the presence of a functional latrine to include criteria such as a latrine superstructure and lid, the absence of excreta nearby, and the use and presence of water and soap or soap substitute.

 Reasons for failure/de-motivators were numerous and included:

  • Financial constraints (18%)
  • Lack of technical support (18%),
  • Inconvenience/discomfort (14%)
  • Repairs (13%),
  • Having to share facilities with others (12%)

Other barriers included:

  • Lack of land, material, or labor (32%)
  • Soil conditions (25%)
  • Lack of technical knowledge (13%)
  • Water availability issues (13%)
  • Poor construction quality (11%)

Without diving into any of the muddy, wonky, or often intractable details of any of these at this point, each one of these issues warrants serious consideration when designing interventions, it’s critical to acknowledge that the right translation to complexity be made at the project design and country-level planning stages.  Ignoring this prevents the sector from learning from its mistakes.


water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

Wazungu wote wanakuja na kalamu zao, lakini hawana kutuletea maji.”

Nearly a decade ago I was walking out of an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with a research assistant and overheard someone behind us say this.

Everyone is still trying to figure out water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project sustainability

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about aid effectiveness in the water sector.  Failure rates are often quite high, and, although the numbers are wide-ranging, the statistics are shocking. For example, RWSN data shows handpump failure at 10-67%.  Improve International has even more depressing statistics.

When I try to wrap my head around a problem, I try to conceptualize what the factors are.  Surely, one has to consider ecology, hydrology, engineering, economics, institutions, etc.  As a lowly WASH consultant, I’m well-aware that I am certainly not the only one trying to think about this. Water and Improve International have developed a really useful set of criteria for project sustainability.  USAID and Rotary International have their own sustainability assessment tool as well.  Also, IRC is constantly featuring these concerns in its WASH blogs. I’m particularly fond of the Water Services That Last blog.

On top of this, every year, for example, the World Bank pulls in experts from all over the world for conferences in WASH Sustainability for the purpose of sharing and advancing best practices.

We’re constantly going back to the drawing board.

Trends, frameworks, and themes in international development change more often than fashion and hemlines.Development professionals much, much more established than I have been struggling with this for decades.  More importantly, those who live this reality day in/day out truly struggle with this.

There’s an urgency to get this right.  It’s in this spirit that I hope to bring a more effective pen to this issue.