5 myths drowning out progress on WASH

What are the biggest misconceptions people have around WASH work and what impact do they have? Photo by: © UNICEF Ethiopia / 2016 / Mulugeta Ayene / CC BY-NC-ND

BARCELONA — Myths about water, sanitation, and hygiene are preventing investors and donors from allocating adequate resources to services across Africa and South Asia, according to Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, a nonprofit organization.

In a recent report, it identified the most commons myths as being that water should be free and that building toilets alone can solve sanitation issues.

Such myths have stunted progress in providing universal access to clean water and safe sanitation, said Steve Metcalfe, head of partnerships and communications at WSUP.

One in three people worldwide do not currently have access to clean drinking water, which can lead to diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and trachoma. Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6, which strives to ensure water and sanitation for all, requires improving access to basic services for over 2 billion people.

“What we need to see is universal provision of household drinking water to become a top political priority.”

— Dr. Virginia Newton-Lewis, senior policy analyst in water security, WaterAid

“The issue of myths in any sector is that they distract from the real solutions,” said Dr. Virginia Newton-Lewis, senior policy analyst in water security at WaterAid. “While some of these myths are in circulation, getting that message across is more difficult.”

Devex asked experts which myths they felt to be the biggest barriers in the WASH sector and how to overcome them.

1. Utilities can’t serve the lowest-income households and water should be free

For Metcalfe, this pair of myths go together. If believed, people bypass efforts to improve access to utilities and instead develop different solutions for clean water access. While innovation can be good, utilities are the only way to improve access to water across an entire city, he argued.

Yet utilities cannot operate for free when it costs money to deliver water to people’s homes. “If what you’re asking is for utilities to deliver at a cost to themselves but they’re not being allowed to recoup any of the costs from the end-user, then that isn’t a sustainable service,” he said.

The challenge is in making access to utilities affordable for everyone regardless of household income. While ideally, each household would have its own access to water, community access to water kiosks or ATMs is one way of providing access to utilities for a cheaper price, Metcalfe said

2. There’s not enough water in the world

This is one of the biggest misunderstandings, Newton-Lewis said, explaining that water is a renewable resource that will not run out.

Demand for water is rising as a result of population growth, but the idea that 800 million people don’t have access to clean water because the water supply is not there is incorrect, she said. It’s a lack of finance, political will, or governance that is hindering physical access to water.

“Even in water scarce regions, improved water management that prioritizes household water supplies could have a huge impact with very low economic costs,” she said.

3. Desalination will solve everything

The process of removing salt from seawater is sometimes framed as being the best answer to a lack of access to clean water. While desalination has a role to play in very specific circumstances, Newton-Lewis said, there are other solutions that are less expensive to roll out, do not cause pollution, and have fewer limitations.

“What we need to see is universal provision of household drinking water to become a top political priority. Lack of access to safe water supplies is often down to insufficient finance or political will to support basic services, rather than a physical absence of available water,” she said.

WaterAid works with communities to identify the best solutions for clean water access — including the installation of solar-powered water pumps and community-run utility models — while also training local people in how to maintain such systems and raising awareness around clean water access.

4. Planting trees solves water scarcity

Another activity often banded about as a solution: planting trees does not solve water scarcity, Newton-Lewis said. Although good for the environment in general, planting trees to improve water availability can often have reverse effects.

“Trees need water and they use a lot when they are growing so initially afforestation can result in less water for other users. When trees are planted on landscape scales, there is evidence that this can encourage more rain, but this effect takes time to establish itself,” she explained.

5. There is a single solution that can improve access to WASH

A comprehensive and adaptive approach that is responsive to local settings is the way forward, said Antoinette Kome, global sector coordinator for WASH at SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in an email. “The idea that technology alone or business, government, or civil society alone is the solution to redress unequal access to WASH services is purely a myth.”

It is not difficult to frame all the challenges in the sector as technological, or financial, or due to the absence of a stakeholder but that then legitimizes a solution around that single issue, Kome said, explaining that a single innovation is not a solution; the task is about fitting such innovations into the broader system of service delivery and integrating them with other elements, she said.

Technology, business, or government optimism rarely does the trick, Kome added. “Rather the suggestion that there are quick simple fixes, diverts stakeholders from the fact that integrating innovation into systems is hard work,” she said.

How to tackle the myths

While it could be assumed that those who know the sector well enough will simply disregard these myths, the issue is that many decision-makers may not be so well versed, advocates said — and that can have real impacts on what gets funded.

Metcalfe said organizations that are able to drive change — such as authorities and utilities — need to work together to address these issues if SDG 6 is to be achieved.

Raising the profile of WASH activities in general and the crisis in water supply services is another way to debunk misconceptions, Newton-Lewis said. Pointing out that there is enough water — making this, at base, a management issue — will help to create the enabling environment, political will, and investment needed to ensure better access to it, she said.

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.