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Published on: 07/10/2022

We need strong systems if we’re to improve service delivery and make sure every home has taps and toilets, and every community has safe, continuous water, sanitation, and hygiene services by 2030. ‘Basic’ is no longer good enough.

We know how to achieve SDG6. But we need national agendas with strong political leadership; with politicians – presidents, prime ministers, and parliaments – to take notice and act, leading the way in partnerships with international institutions and investors to rapidly accelerate progress. This event will bring these change-makers together in one place, over three days.

Systems are all around us, delivering essential services that we rely on. Education, health, road traffic – in each case, we interact with these systems daily. In effective systems, people and organisations work with each other and with all sorts of more and less tangible elements, such as funding, policy, institutions, technology, and the physical environment, to deliver the services that people want and need. The stronger and more developed the system, the more comprehensive and durable the services it delivers. When they work well, systems are unnoticed by the people they serve. When they don’t, the failure is obvious: the plane is cancelled, the electricity shuts down, and the tap opens but no water comes out. 

When we talk about systems in WASH, we are talking about everything that is needed to supply safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services to women, men, boys, and girls. That is; the physical raw water in rivers or lakes or underground; the physical infrastructure – the pumps and treatment plants and pipes that bring them to people’s homes or water kiosks; the meters and taps in people’s houses; the people and organisations they are part of; the public servants that issue the permits to extract that water; those who manage the distribution network; those who read the meters. We are also talking about the relationships and interactions between these different parts of the system, including the customers who pay their bills (or don’t); the policymakers who decide which infrastructure gets invested in; the financiers who help pay for it, and the politicians and regulators who create the legal framework for owning assets and setting tariffs. All these together make up the safe water and sanitation system (Moriarty, 2017). 

Achieving the 2030 SDG targets in Africa will require a 12-fold increase in an effort to increase current rates of progress on safely managed drinking water, a 20-fold increase in safely managed sanitation, and a 42-fold increase in basic hygiene services. (JMP, 2021). Several reasons explain the current situation of WASH in Africa. Key among them include difficulties and high costs of providing WASH services in Africa due to low prioritisation and investment, and poor targeting (UN-Water, 2021; WHO and UNICEF, 2021).  

The first and probably best-known reference for water professionals on the continent is the Africa Water Vision 2025. It was introduced in 2000 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in collaboration with the African Union and the African Development Bank. In March 2000, African leaders signed up to the vision of an Africa where there is sustainable access to drinking water and sanitation that is safe and adequate to meet the basic needs of all by 2025. This ambition was supported by substantial structural measures:  

  • Mainstreaming full cost recovery and service differentiation, while ensuring safety nets for the poor;  
  • Securing sustainable financing from national and international sources for tackling urgent water needs; 
  • Securing sustainable financing for institutional reform; 
  • Securing sustainable financing for information generation and management; 
  • Promoting and facilitating private sector financing in the water sector. 

The measures called for in the Africa Water Vision 2025 correspond to aspects of what is increasingly referred to as national and local water and sanitation systems strengthening. What is striking is how very relevant the structural measures identified by African leaders in 2000 still seem, as they align with what is being called for in many reports in 2021 and 2022 (AMCOW, AFDB).  

So why has so little progress been made against these lofty systems strengthening goals during the past 20 years? Our response is that the WASH sector in Africa urgently needs a strong and clear agenda for systems strengthening. This symposium brings together various stakeholders to showcase the different initiatives from the continent that can help in accelerating systems strengthening. It provides Africa with an opportunity to kick-start a continental agenda that will focus the efforts towards achieving effective and resilient governing, and management systems for WASH, hence All Systems Go Africa! 

Background paper



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