A climate-resilient water scheme built by UNICEF, in collaboration with the regional water bureau and water offices, in Afdera, Ethiopia. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / Mulugeta Ayene / CC BY-NC-ND

ALICANTE, Spain — With multiple elections taking place in 2020, experts are working to educate candidates on water challenges — in the hopes that raising awareness and accountability among would-be officials could lead to significant progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water for all.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene remain low priority on many political agendas, said Juste Hermann Nansi, Burkina Faso country director at the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. But with Bolivia, Ghana, Sri Lanka, and the United States among just some of the countries voting in new heads of state before the year’s end, there’s potential for improvement.

The only way to accelerate progress in WASH is to educate those in power about the current challenges, said John Oldfield, principal of Global Water 2020, an initiative focused on water access and security. Globally 2.2 billion people lack access to clean water and 4.2 billion don’t have safe sanitation services available to them.

“If one can get candidates — both incumbents and challengers — for every elected office in the world to see how solvable the water and sanitation challenge is in their geography, whether it’s a country or municipality, once they do get back into office or into office for the first time … that bodes well for them being able to prioritize water,” Oldfield said.

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Al-Hassan Adam, international coordinator at End Water Poverty — a coalition of civil society organizations that campaigns for sustainable WASH — believes politicians are already aware of the issues but don’t have the drive to address it. “Even if you’re a president in a developing country, you have a family member who lives somewhere without water or a toilet so I would not take that as an excuse from a politician,” he said.

But elections provide a great opportunity to raise the stakes around WASH, Nansi said. “That’s the time people and candidates make commitments and they enable the citizens to hold them to account,” he said.

Oldfield recommended that the United Nations and international donor community support electoral processes around the world with information around WASH.

How to campaign on a practical level:

1. Invest in advocacy

WASH advocacy needs to be professionalized, rather than remain dependent on volunteer labor, Oldfield said. “Advocacy is something a lot of really smart people across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East do when their day job is done,” he said. “I’m suggesting that a professional, paid WASH advocate encouraging governments to do the right thing, to increase budgets, strengthen policies, [and] strengthen programs, will be the only way to meet the SDGs at this point.”

In the past, advocacy efforts have seen success as they’ve supplemented grassroots movements for human rights, anti-slavery, and LGBTQ issues.

“My call to action to donors is to drill fewer wells and support more professional WASH advocates,” Oldfield said, adding that education, human rights, and health advocates must help by also incorporating WASH into their asks of governments. This will make the issue of WASH much louder, he said.

2. Strengthen civil society voices

Civil society organizations’ voices also need to be strengthened in order to encourage elected leaders to prioritize WASH, Oldfield said.

In a toolkit on how to campaign for WASH during an election, End Water Poverty recommends creating coalitions and developing joint messages, writing to candidates, and hosting roundtables to ensure those elected understand the importance of WASH and providing access to it.

Barbara Schreiner, executive director of the Water Integrity Network, said to make sure any communication with politicians is in a language they will understand and not technical jargon. She recommended explaining the benefits in a digestible way and telling human stories.

“Even if you’re a president in a developing country, you have a family member who lives somewhere without water or a toilet.”

— Al-Hassan Adam, international coordinator, End Water Poverty

The introduction of free basic water in South Africa — where residents can access 6,000 liters per household a month — was driven quite strongly by a minister who saw a woman unable to afford the water available, digging in a dry riverbed to find water, Schreiner explained. “It’s very important you frame it in a way they’ll be interested in hearing it,” she said.

In Burkina Faso, Nansi said they’d seen success in the 2015 presidential election when deploying key messages through radio, TV, and billboards. “Luckily, we saw, all of a sudden, the candidates start sharing various solutions about water and commitments about access to water,” he said, adding that, prior to winning, current President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré talked about ending water poverty as part of his mandate.

3. Campaign beyond the election

Attendees at a session on water and politics at last week’s virtual World Water Week said that interest from politicians in water can be short-term and driven by election goals.

For example, Adam told of a Zambian village where a local MP promised to get their broken water system fixed as part of his campaign. It never happened. When the issue was later raised in the press, the MP quickly committed to fixing it within five days, Hassan said. “So why didn’t he fix it for nine months?” he asked.

“We know all over the world that people make election promises that don’t get carried through so convincing politicians prior to election is just one part of it, it has to be an ongoing process,” Schreiner said, explaining the need to continue campaigning beyond the initial election process.

“You need a political commitment and people knowing that there’s pressure on them,” Adam said.

4. Track commitments

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Keeping stock of the commitments that have been made and they work that needs to still be done can be useful in determining the need for continued campaigning. Once commitments have been made, they need to be tracked, Adam said. “You don’t just take their word.”

In Burkina Faso, NGOs are working with the government on an online progress tracker and have regular meetings to question ministers on progress.

“Without a systematic tracker, you lose track of what promises have been delivered,” Adam said, explaining that End Water Poverty is working to get other countries to implement similar mechanisms. “But unless the governments want to play ball, [CSOs] will not be able to implement it,” he warned.

“For those who play ostrich to the issue, you have to mobilize by exposing them through the media and street mobilization,” Adam said, explaining that this could involve engaging the media or conducting street protests.

About the author

  • 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.