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50 years of IRC: Interview with Barbara van Koppen

Published on: 10/12/2018

Multiple-Use water Services for better health and wealth for all

In IRC's 50 years of existence there have been many milestones. A few of them stand out because of the way they have influenced the WASH sector and beyond. IRC and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) started working together on Multiple-Use water Services (MUS) in the early 2000s. Irrigation and WASH sector experts joined hands to change the way people were thinking in the water sector. Barbara van Koppen - principal researcher of poverty, gender, and water at the IWMI in Pretoria, South Africa - was one of the project thought leaders and a founding member of the MUS Group. During a very friendly Skype call we spoke about MUS, what the WASH sector can learn from the irrigation sector and her memories of working with IRC.

 Skype interview with Barbara van Koppen

About IRC and MUS

SB: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of IRC?

BvK: A committed, joyful group of professionals who really try to innovate, combine action on the ground with creative thinking - and then communicate these experiences to global audiences. So really, a knowledge centre that's working on very important issues.

SB: How did you come to be in touch with IRC?

BvK: In my work for IWMI - which used to be the International Irrigation Management Institute - I mainly focused on gender and irrigation. In the early 2000s, we started to realise that irrigation canals are used for domestic purposes, for livestock, gardening and also for small-scale enterprises at all levels. IRC was at the same time also working on this. So we held a workshop together, which took into account that women and men have both domestic and productive tasks. We agreed that focusing on only one aspect of water use is not in line with how it works in reality. For irrigation people it was very funny to think about productive use as something special because for us it was part of the job - but this wasn't the case everywhere. So we combined our findings to challenge the then prevailing mind-set of focusing on the single use of water in the WASH sector.

We worked together on a project for the Challenge Programme on Water and Food and this is where we coined the term MUS (Multiple Use water Services). The collaboration was fantastic! With IRC's and IWMI's networks we could involve 150 institutions in eight countries in a five to six-year project and really start documenting and collaborating as sectors. From IRC, we worked with Patrick Moriarty, John Butterworth, Stef Smits and Marieke Adank. More than 15 years later, Stef is still managing the MUS website, the depository of all the information on MUS, and the secretariat of the international MUS Group which is linked to the Rural Water Supply Network.

So the whole concept and the collaboration between IWMI and IRC still continues. As long as people focus on multiple uses from multiple sources, the MUS project will remain relevant.

SB: Is there an anecdote or a story that is especially dear to you from the MUS journey?

BvK: At some point we had a meeting and the sign on the conference room said: "MUS will save the world". Someone at IRC wrote it and I think it nicely showed the ambition, enthusiasm and commitment we had and still have for the project.

So MUS will save the world.

MUS will save the world

About the Future

SB: If you think about the future of WASH, is there any advice that you would like to share coming from the irrigation sector?

BvK: When it comes to catching up with the WASH sector, IRC remains my reference point on what the current debates are. Because what comes from IRC will be very well informed, solid and relevant both in terms of concepts but also in terms of changes on the ground.

Now I see that conversations are focused on service levels, safety of water and sanitation services, I'm wondering if people are still talking about quantities at all? It would have been good to keep talking about getting water to people in the first place. It matters if people have access to 25, 50 or 100 litres per person per day.

Also, from the irrigation side, we see a lot happening in self-supply, people do their own thing. They invest in small pumps or in gravity pipes to channel water from the mountains and more. So self-supply, even using buckets for irrigation, is very important in the irrigation sector. Of course this is linked to multiple sources for multiple uses, and thus is also relevant for the WASH sector.

The next big question really becomes: how can governments support such informal investments? Because piped supplies work in urban settings but not in remote scattered villages, which will remain dependent on self-supply for a long time to come. The WASH sector is strong and for good reasons is successful at getting public support for the right to water for domestic users. However, support for self-supply as well as for MUS will remain an important challenge and I still think very few organisations are really focusing on this.

About our Anniversary

SB: Is there a specific message you'd like to share with IRC connected to our 50th anniversary?

BvK: Congratulations, IRC with your 50th birthday, a long period in which you have really established yourselves as a knowledge hub on WASH issues and even beyond WASH, such as Multiple Use water Services (MUS).

You have kept us thinking! So keep on sending out messages that help us continue to do so - in the WASH sector, the irrigation sector, water resources management and more. Stay on track with important themes and keep sharing them over the next 50 years!

I wish you lots of success and I hope we'll keep on collaborating!

Many thanks to Barbara van Koppen for sharing her story with us. Do you also have a special story related to IRC? We'd love to hear it! Leave a comment or message us at



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