A water drop. Photo by: Craig S / CC BY-NC

There is a group of girls in West Bengal who now have a school bathroom they are proud to use. They helped design this bathroom so they wouldn’t need to walk past the teachers’ room each time they went – that embarrassed them. They also installed mirrors so they could adjust their Saris before returning to class.

Even better: Local government continues to finance school maintenance and to stock materials making this program last. Parents also contribute and a children-led WASH committee is in charge of hygiene education and ensuring other children use the facilities appropriately. This child-friendly approach toward water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, in schools is now being replicated by other district governments and promoted in national school development plans endorsed at the ministry level.

This is just one example of how development initiatives can succeed when organizations innovate and collaborate with local stakeholders. Organizations across the WASH sector are rethinking their role in catalyzing the delivery of water and sanitation services. The water and sanitation crisis is still vast and much more work is needed. New studies suggest that the crisis is far worse than previously reported with as many as four billion people affected by poor sanitation conditions and as many as 1.8 billion people without reliable water services. Efforts to ensure lasting and affordable water and sanitation service delivery must evolve and innovate to meet the immensity of this challenge. 

This World Water Day, on March 22, you will most likely hear that the attention of the global community is now shifting to the post-Millennium Development Goal priority of universal coverage for WASH. With this transition, monitoring must also shift focus, away from the previous indicator of access, toward long-term outcomes focused on ongoing service delivery. This means looking beyond “projects” funded and beneficiaries reached and instead looking at systematic capacity building within government, civil society and private sector institutions. If those involved with WASH programs could better demonstrate their impact – for example using indicators to show capacity built with local partners – this would be progress.

Over the past few years, Water For People has tried to demonstrate that one small U.S.-based international nonprofit could model such a shift, and it’s hoping that other organizations will follow suit.

In the process, Water For People has moved from a donor-driven, infrastructure-focused approach that rarely resulted in lasting impact to an outcome-focused strategy based on broad and bold results. The goal over the next five years is even more ambitious: support 30 districts — nearly four million people — across 10 coun­tries to achieve ongoing water service delivery. Underpinning this new strategy is adherence to work according to five principles:

  1. Reaching everyone. Every family, school and clinic in target districts gains access to lasting safe drinking water services, including the hardest-to-reach, the poorest, the politically disconnected and the marginalized. From 2011 to 2012, Water For People has seen an increase in water coverage in 12 districts across four countries from 45.6 percent to 64 percent.

  2. Leveraging investment. Everyone contributes money – governments put funds on the table and communities contribute and agree to pay something, most often by setting a tariff for services over time. External partners finance the gaps needed to reach full district coverage.

  3. Monitoring impact. Outcomes are monitored for at least 10 years. This helps to verify results and institutionalize local capacity to independently monitor and address inevitable problems that emerge. In 2012, Water For People staff and partners collected more than 23,000 surveys measuring water, sanitation and hygiene indicators to understand what is and isn’t working, with the goal of improving future outcomes.

  4. Achieving forever. Focus on identifying sustainability challenges from the beginning of the program. These include long-term finance issues: ensuring mechanisms are in place so systems can be maintained and replaced; sustainable sanitation: products and services people like and can afford are widely available; institutional capacity: local institutions have solid technical, financial and administrative capabilities; water resource management best practices are implemented locally. The goal is that outside support isn’t needed anymore. 

  5. Replicating Success. Success in targeted district work must lead to a snowball effect, where success scales to national level over time, with local government in the lead.

Together, these five principles make up an approach called Everyone Forever, an unbranded movement that aims to achieve universal water and sanitation service delivery (Everyone) that lasts indefinitely (Forever). For Everyone Forever to really work, the role of entrepreneurs and the private sector must not be overlooked.  These businesses and individuals play a crucial role in providing ongoing services and regular maintenance. The development community must invest more resources into building and tracking private-sector capacity and creating jobs.

World Water Day is a time to reflect on how the water sector is doing and where it needs to go, what changes are needed. This World Water Day I urge people to make a change, take a risk, try something new and shake things up so that in a few years, we can show real and verifiable progress toward achieving access to water and sanitation for everyone forever 

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • John Sauer

    John Sauer heads external relations, international programs at Water For People. In this role, he supports partnership and strategy development to enable the organization to achieve greater impact in the ten countries it works. He also coordinates a variety of communication initiatives allowing the organization to influence better sustainability of water and sanitation programs. Previously, John worked as communications director for Water Advocates; he has worked as a program manager with several international humanitarian organizations over the last 20 years, h responsibilities ranging from managing water and sanitation projects in Uganda to developing an emergency aid program for street children in St. Petersburg, Russia.