Published on: 05/06/2020
The impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented on all areas of peoples lives globally, on a scale barely imagined only a few months ago. From the ever growing infection rates and death toll as the virus travelled around the world, to the light it shined on the huge disparities of impact on different populations as, on the one hand, day labourers struggled to feed themselves and their families whilst in lock-down with no resources, whilst others hoarded toilet paper...
Which brings us to something that also happened within the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector. Almost overnight we have seen the need to have access to safe water and soap to wash your hands to stop the spread of corona virus promoted across newspapers, TV programmes and government health communications. For those working in WASH suddenly an opportunity presented itself to finally disseminate the messages we have struggled to get real traction with in front of government ministers and encourage them to make the long overdue and necessary investments in access to safe WASH services for their populations.
In the past weeks though, we have also seen this message slipping from the front pages as attention shifts to coping with increasing numbers of people being hospitalised, death rates climbing, and the race to find a vaccine cranks up with huge investments being made by many companies and governments. In truth, the scale of investments towards finding a vaccine is something that the WASH sector can often only dream of.
In the midst of this, those funding WASH have also been trying to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 provides. Many have made new funds available for emergency WASH interventions or allowed diversions of their current funding into COVID-19 related projects.
In talking with donors though and seeing all these pivots in priorities I worry that these increased investments in WASH risk missing the bigger sustainable picture for a quick unsustainable fix yet again. Something that has been characterised in many WASH interventions over the past decades.
In the rush to find quick solutions – a tanker of water there, a quickly installed pump here, temporary solutions everywhere, we run the very real risk of compounding the problems of those same populations we profess to be helping. Once the money runs out or the crisis passes will any of these marginalised populations be left with sustainable services? Will governments have made long-term prioritisations to providing WASH services (WASH services ARE health services after all) or will we be back to where we started at the beginning of 2020, but having thrown more money at the problem than ever before? Will we be left with 1000's more unusable pumps, broken due to lack of parts and maintenance, unusable because boreholes were poorly sited, soap supplies running out as no supply chains or local businesses were included in the interventions? Will funders and investors look at WASH interventions once again as a bad investment (the proverbial leaky bucket) next to other projects with more reliable returns?
COVID-19 certainly offers us an opportunity to reiterate the link between safe WASH services and improved public health and its one we absolutely should maximise, but whilst rushing to ensure the most vulnerable and marginalised finally have access to safe WASH services don't we also have a duty to make sure that these continue after this most recent crisis has passed? People have been dying for lack of good services for years, and yet now that the ability to wash your hands is important for all in order to prevent the spread of infection for a virus that doesn't discriminate on the size of your wallet, access to services is suddenly prioritised.
Now is the time to look at the services we are providing and make sure they are sustainable. This means taking a systems approach to the interventions we are undertaking and ensuring that implementations are backed up with political follow-through. Investing in hospitals and vaccines is a fool's errand if those who are using these services have illnesses that could be easily (and more cheaply) prevented through the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
Many donors are making additional monies available for COVID-19 activities and mitigations. My plea to them is to pause, think and review where this money is going and make sure that we don't fall into the same patterns of behaviour that haven't worked for the last 50 years. Don't throw good money after bad. Invest in sustainable solutions. Make sure there is real government will and drive for the implementations you are funding. That local business and supply lines are supported and not destroyed. That the planning, monitoring, regulations and legislation are in place. That there is an exit strategy for those you are funding that ensures interventions will continue to work after the money has gone.
To donors asking whether now is really the time to undertake a systems approach, my reply is, YES, absolutely. Systems require political will and focus to understand that providing complex services requires more than just digging a hole in the ground or providing a bar of soap, as much as a providing a health service doesn't just require buying a bed, or an education service a desk. If with all the focus on the absolute importance of WASH now we can't deliver the message on the importance of understanding WASH in the context of a systemic approach then we have failed.
If not systems now, then when?
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