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Education, the main challenge for WASH systems

Published on: 02/04/2019

When we talk about water and sanitation systems (WASH), it is easy to think only of infrastructure, construction, and toilets… but that is not just what WASH is about.

WASH is a complex system involving different stakeholders who play essential roles in its functioning. And I am not only talking about engineers or politicians…. I am talking about national, subnational and local governments as well as local leaders, engineers, private companies and community in general. All of them must work together because the mission that they have is none other than to achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal number 6, that urges to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

We are still far from achieving this goal. According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Report 2018, in 2015 29 percent of the global population lacked safely managed drinking water supplies, and 61 percent were without carefully managed sanitation services. Besides that, by 2015, 892 million people continued to practice open defecation. Different approaches are needed to overcome this reality, but one thing is central in this process: education.

That is why during the first day of the ‘WASH Systems Symposium ‘All systems go!’ that took place in The Hague from 12 - 14 March 2019, representatives from different education and capacity building approaches got together to discuss this.

Participants attending a session during the IRC WASH Symposium 2019

In a session called ‘Understanding local needs and unlocking latent capacity’, participants explored alternatives of capacity building and discussed experiences and initiatives at local levels.

Pam Furniss, a professor at the Open University in the UK, that provides distance learning, mentioned the urge for people with capacity and knowledge to influence the sector.  “People need to understand WASH as a system and understand their role in it.” Acknowledging the complexity of the system, she highlighted that education and training at different levels are fundamental, not only at technical but also at community level. For example, school teachers as local influencers must learn about it to be able to spread the word within their communities. The Open University is creating the materials to provide education and training in sustainable WASH systems at different levels and contexts. The idea is to use distance-learning techniques to help scale the knowledge with high-quality tailored education to local levels. Through their work, they are to enable dynamic thinking avoiding traditional systems. “Doctors used to not be taught about bedside manners, but now they are. Similarly, engineers need to understand that effective communication with local communities is essential”, said Furniss.  

On the other side, Sovattha Neou, from the Cambodian organisation WaterSHED, is training community counsellors, as they are essential to address the communities. “They are key in finding the problems and creating solutions,” Sovattha mentioned. Her organisation created a programme called ‘Civic Champions’ in which participants pay for the initial training. During training, community leaders write a plan about how they are going to get more villagers to buy more latrines and three months later report back with lessons learned and problems overcome. According to Sovattha, this programme allows learning from one another.

Tereza Nega, an IRC Ethiopia associate, presented another programme from Ethiopia. She talked about the importance of local government co-funded programmes and the need for learning alliances between government actors, different administrative levels, development partners, academic institutions and other stakeholders to successfully scale up WASH systems and ensure sustainability.

From India, IRC associate Nitya Jacob presented a study about the capacity of WASH service providers of Odisha state, in India. The purpose of the study was to capture the importance of capacities when talking about systems strengthening in the WASH sector. The idea was to build an understanding of capacity building initiatives for the different stakeholders (bureaucrats, technocrats and elected representative) in the state of Odisha to understand if their capacities and staffing adequate to deliver the national and international commitments for WASH.

In a country like India that has a long chain of command from the central government to the cluster of villages (known as Panchayats), this study revealed that capacities for drinking water and sanitation steadily decline as they progress from the state government towards the grassroots government institution. It also showed often functional overlaps between bureaucrats. Despite at state and district levels officials were competent with budgeting and planning, there was a lack of knowledge about mega-piped water schemes. As well, the study found a lack of women's participation in strategy and monitoring work. 

Discussing education in the WASH system is fundamental. A recent study titled, 'An Avoidable Crisis: WASH Human Resource Capacity Gaps in 15 Developing Economies', found that "there is little common ground between what human resources are needed in the sector and what the universities, technical and vocational training institutions equip alumni, graduates and job entrants with." The study also shows that "the applicability of knowledge and skills transferred fails to meet the identified needs of the countries". So education is indeed an integral part of moving forward in the WASH sector and achieving the SDGs.

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