Skip to main content

Published on: 17/12/2019

Left to right: Eric Paglia (moderator), Joseph Oriono Eyatu, Commissioner for Rural Water and Sanitation, Uganda, IRC CEO Patrick Moriarty, and Honourable Cecilia Abena Dapaah, Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources, Ghana. Photo: video still, SIWI

So why do so many WASH projects all over the world fail sooner or later? Why do facilities fail - pumps remain unrepaired, wells run dry, sanitation facilities break down - there does seem less or no control over this situation? Surely everybody wants – no, needs – proper water, sanitation and hygiene services? Anyone working in the WASH sector has heard of these problems all too often and for far too long.

But maybe things are changing. It seems that WASH services are more likely to be sustainable in the long run if they operate within a strong system and have the support of the government. And what do we mean by ‘a strong system’? A strong WASH system means having the enabling environment in which all the actors can play their roles in service delivery and that these roles are joined up and effective.

During a Sofa Session facilitated by Eric Paglia at the Stockholm Water Week 25-30 August 2019, the Honourable Cecilia Abena Dapaah, Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources in Ghana, Joseph Oriono Eyatu, Commissioner for Rural Water and Sanitation at the Ministry of Water and Environment in Uganda, and Patrick Moriarty, CEO of IRC, made a strong case for systems strengthening and government support.

Without political leadership buy-in, universal access is unlikely to happen

Patrick Moriarty kicked off the discussion by making the connection between systems strengthening and strong government backing. This government backing must be both at national and local levels, from the president or prime minister’s office to mayors and district commissioners. “We are beginning to see some really exciting signs of strong and dynamic leadership buying into the idea of universal access,” he says.

Joseph Oriono Eyatu echoes this. “For Uganda to achieve universal coverage, political leadership is critical. This is especially important in extending coverage to rural areas. Programmes will not progress without approval at every political level, and we need the buy-in of all those levels.”

So when government officials have so many priorities, how do you make sure they support your water priority? The first rule is to be in it for the long-term. The political buy-in will not happen overnight, and often not even within a few years. Choose your battles and find pressing areas that you know are either of interest to government officials or that you know they will not be able to turn away from. The Commissioner for Rural Water and Sanitation has found a strategy that works for him in the Ugandan context. “We go to an area because of a particular challenge, such as no access to water, and then we raise the issue with the politicians and engage them from the beginning. We keep them informed all the time and try to make sure that we have a committee in Parliament that deals with our issue. By the time we go to Parliament, they are already very aware of the programme. This is how we get the buy-in.”

And political support seems to be working in Ghana too where the Government has declared water and sanitation as some the country’s top 15 priority areas. The President even created the new Ministry for Sanitation and Water Resources which is now driving access to water and WASH. As the Minister, the Honourable Cecilia Abena Dapaah, even has direct access to the Minister for Finance, this is very welcome given that funding for water projects is notoriously hard to acquire.


Ghana’s political leadership has shown its commitment to leaving no one behind by “putting its money where its mouth is”. It has invested in both rural and urban water through loans and grants to the tune of about one billion Ghanaian cedis (approx. USD 175 million). “We cannot do everything at the same time, but we are on track. We are partnering with the World Bank to provide funds for household toilets to vulnerable groups. Where a proportion of the funds is jointly paid by the World Bank and the Government of Ghana and the individual homes pay the rest of the proportion. This formula has caught on like wildfire because now the communities own the projects.”

Tariffs is a hotly debated subject, but one that has its advantages. Investors are reluctant to put their money into schemes that are high risk, unlikely to generate any returns in the long term and, importantly, are not in a stable environment. The Minister explains how they are tackling this issue in Ghana. “Previously, we built a system, gave it to the community and formed WATSANS (water and sanitation committees). In the eyes of the community, ‘the Government put it there’ and it was not sustainable. Now the Government has created the Community Water and Sanitation Agency which has created jobs and charges tariffs. The Agency is generating internally generated funds to undertake projects so we now have utilities with tariffs and this is more attractive to investors.” The IRC CEO agrees. “This is the story we can sell to ministries of finance who tend to see the sector as a bottomless pit. They are prepared to invest when they see it's not a leaky sieve.” The trend now in several countries is that government agencies are changing their roles from being facilitators of projects to being more like utility providers. This is an exciting movement and beginning to accelerate the rate of coverage – to rural as well as urban areas – and it is political leadership that is making it happen. Once the government starts to lead, NGOs like IRC and investors can come in behind them. Patrick Moriarty sees that “money follows politics. When the government is engaged and believes in universal access, the money follows.”

To close this blog on a positive note, we all share the Ghanaian Minister’s motivation when she says “It's a blessing to work in the area of water and sanitation because you are improving the lives of people. It's a human right and governments have no choice but to work towards the provision of water.”

A blog based on the video below: SIWI Sofa 8830 [2019]: Strong water and sanitation systems need a strong government. 

Read also a blog by Patrick Moriarty on Why networking and collective action are essential to systems change.

Healthy WASH Systems involve multiple factors and actors working together under government leadership to deliver WASH services policy, institutions, infrastructure provision, monitoring, planning, finance, regulation, WRM, and learning. Read more about Understanding the WASH system and its building blocks: building strong WASH systems for the SDGs.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

Back to
the top