'Step change' needed to tackle WASH in the post-MDG era

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 27 August 2015

WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost. Photo by: WaterAid

This week, development practitioners have converged on Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss how water-related issues can be addressed effectively in the next set of development goals.

That’s no surprise as they are there for World Water Week, after all. But ensuring safe drinking water for everyone shouldn’t be the only subject on the table, according to WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost.

“Safe water for drinking … depends on also having good, safe sanitation. Without decent removal of human waste and toilets, water is contaminated often by fecal matter,” she emphasized in an interview with Devex.

While the 17 sustainable development goals are already adopted and only waiting for formal approval at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Frost said there are “more discussions to go” on the indicators for each of the SDGs’ 169 associated targets, which may not be finalized until March 2016.

And although it’s critical to identify the right indicators that can show progress made on each of these goals, ensuring that they “interlink” is just as important, the WaterAid chief pointed out.

“Because otherwise we’ll go back to having the siloes,” she said.

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Frost, who is participating in discussions in Stockholm.

What calls of action do you have for the different development actors to no longer work in siloes when addressing water, sanitation and hygiene?

I think the main thing is we all need to work together: civil society, private sector, governments. [A] collaborative and integrated effort [is needed] if we’re going to achieve the goals. Many of the sessions that are going on here at World Water Week are bringing together those different perspectives. [For example], governments having responsibility, because under the new SDGs, there is a statement that says, everyone has a right to water and sanitation, which is now enshrined as a human right. Therefore governments have got the responsibility to ensure all their citizens get access to the services.

Now that means they need to have the right enabling environment and systems to allow that to happen sustainably. And they need to be able to have an environment which allows private sector investment, and for civil society to be able to speak out for those that are hardest to reach, and who often get left behind because the overarching aim is to … leave no one behind.

What do you think could hinder actors from imbibing this collaborative approach?

I think there’s much more willingness to think collaboratively, but I think what the difficulty is, is actually coming up with ways of measuring that are looking at the integration of the aims, of the goals. As it is … there’s not an appetite to have more [indicators]. There is a need to somehow make sure that they don’t just look at the 17 in siloes.

So the willingness is there. But I think the complexity with the new goals is something that everybody’s grappling with. [Here, there is an event] talking about the role of the private sector, [another event] where civil society like us are talking about the marginalized, most excluded … and then in other sessions governments are raising issues on monitoring, about making sure the indicators are measurable because at the end of the day, it’s their statistics department or the bureau of statistics that are to get the information.

I think the overarching concern though is the goal, the 2030 [deadline for] eradicating extreme poverty and everyone everywhere having access to water and sanitation. So I think the goal is mobilizing and galvanizing people, but then it’s the detail of what that means. We obviously have different applications whether you’re a water utility or civil society organization supporting citizen action.

You’ve spoken of the links between gender equality and WASH in some of the sessions. What issues still persist when you talk about this?

One of the things we’ve been bringing to the debate along with others [when talking about] women and girls is the forgotten issue of menstrual hygiene management and making sure that under hygiene indicators, menstrual hygiene management is remembered so when schools are being designed there are provisions for girls with toilets and washing facilities.

I think the debate we’re having around disaggregating data and indicators is a practical one, because it’s in the measurement that it’s going to come about. There are a lot of discussions clearly emphasizing water and sanitation and women’s issues, there’s still a lot of gender discrimination, and menstrual hygiene management is still taboo. …

In most of the sessions I’ve seen … the issue of gender equality doesn’t usually come out. So sometimes it has to be prompted. … You can’t talk about water, sanitation and hygiene unless you talk about women and girls and gender equality.

What is your call to action in Stockholm on this issue?

I think going back to the original one … our call is going to be a step change, a major shift forward. Because unless there’s good investment in systems to be able to deliver sustainable ongoing water and sanitation for all, that girls are reached and the most marginalized and most excluded, then change won’t happen. So, moving away from a projectized individual [Millennium Development Goal]-type approach to a much more holistic long-term investment and commitment to systems and processes, and also a strong focus on hygiene … it has to be part of the indicators. It’s when behaviors have changed, people demanding access to decent toilets, them understanding the importance of protecting water from fecal contamination, will there be a big shift.

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About the author

Jenny lei ravelo 400x400
Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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