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New Sustainability: a system is more than a sum of its parts

Published on: 18/07/2016

This post comes from Angela's expedited entry into the WASH sector to research why sustained success has been limited and to uncover which approaches to change might lead to lasting service provision.

Like many in the WASH sector, I have moved from infrastructure to advocacy; from engineering to governance; from water treatment to sanitation and hygiene. This post comes from my expedited entry into the WASH sector to research why sustained success has been limited and to uncover which approaches to change might lead to lasting service provision.

What does sustainability mean?

With the adoption of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals the term ‘sustainable’ is nearly ubiquitously used to describe new WASH programmes. This reflects a fundamental shift from WASH programmes based on installing infrastructure that soon falls into disuse and disrepair toward WASH programmes that aim for long-term viability. However ,we must be sure not to repeat past failures by reiterating old practices under a new name. We must define what ‘sustainability’ means, who the key actors must be to achieve it, and how each of us can contribute significant and practical steps towards developing robust systems that can and will provide universally reliable WASH services that last.

The water point be classified as functional, but water availability is low. Due to water scheduling and the high elevation of this standtap relative to the pipe network. Photo by Angela Huston in Buea Cameroon.

My Background in Buea, Cameroon

I began my research in Buea, Cameroon in 2014 building on nearly a decade of experience by my supervisor, Susan Gaskin. She is experienced in Integrated Water Resource Management in developing countries and began working in Buea through the supervision of a Cameroonian PhD student in Urban Planning at McGill University (Canada). He took an action research approach to improving local knowledge management and facilitating coordinated action; since then our team has continued to integrate engineering research and participatory arts-based methodologies that engage users to communicate with municipal and community decision-makers. Buea makes an interesting case study for soft engineering and action advocacy work because water is physically present to meet the needs of the growing population but a lack of coordination between key actors leads to a perpetual state of the locally-named ‘water crisis’.

While some improvements have been made as a result of this research (such as daily radio announcements of the water delivery schedule) and there is a gradual increase in the local interest and capacity, the changes have had limited staying power and rely largely on the work of a few champions. Although it is a good example of action research and we can celebrate some non-attributable outcomes that may have been influenced by this work, the systems change as a whole is not sustainable because the old status quo is resumed when our champions move on or move out.

Diverse data for advocacy and increased reliability

In order to make water a national priority, we need to quantify the situation. WHO/UNICEF JMP data—based largely on the presence of infrastructure alone—claims that 95% of urban Cameroonians have access to improved water. This impressive statistic masks the reality that water services are extremely unreliable in terms of accessibility, availability, affordability and water quality. In my research I found that perhaps as few as 20% of residents in Buea had safe and reliable access to water as measured by a composite of quantitative and qualitative indicators (based on the method of WASHCost by Moriarty and others, 2011).

Although the mixed-method reliability indicator that I developed during my fieldwork was more robust than the MDG indicators, it was still difficult to quantify people’s access to complex and diverse WASH services. A single household may have four different drinking water sources in the dry season and two others in the rainy season; the time of collection may depend on the school schedule, the grandmother’s health, the success of their taxi business, etc. The sum of the sources might indicate that the household has reliable service according to cumulative metrics, but no single source meets all the criteria for reliability. When attempting to determine the reliability of a particular service delivery system, I observed that the same stand tap might be deemed reliable water for one user and unreliable for another based on differences in their livelihood practices and their expectations.

Understanding true service reliability—and the barriers to change—requires deep contextual understanding of the livelihoods of the users and the socio-political environment in which they live. Some types of qualitative information can be represented using quantitative indicators, for example affordability can be represented by the number of respondents who list cost as a barrier to consumption, but other information cannot be measured directly. The non-measurable qualitative ‘background’ information can be used to develop an analytical framework for selecting strategic indicators and interpreting quantitative data.

We then consider the barriers to improving water reliability. It is easy to identify aging infrastructure and a growing population as the cause, but these are symptoms of a poorly functioning framework for service provision. It is necessary to qualitatively understand the operating environment to be able to interpret raw quantitative data and traditional metrics. We must identify the root causes of the systemic problems, if our goal is to achieve universal long term WASH service provision.

Three Chiefs proudly unveil a new catchment project that they collectively funded and implemented to serve their communities in Limbe, Cameroon. Now that the catchment is developed they seek contributions from individual villages to connect to the system over several kilometres. Photographer unknown, in Limbe Cameroon.

‘Soft’ engineering and the operating context

Our experience in Buea suggests that the external and ‘soft’ factors of the enabling environment are the greatest barriers to sustainability, yet 95% of key actors in our 2008 study considered the reliability problems to be solely due to inadequate infrastructure.  This suggests a need to engage the institutions that are responsible for reliable WASH service provision in developing a systems level approach that includes the soft aspects of design. Lack of systems thinking and coordinated approach has led, in Buea, to lack of maintenance of infrastructure and the expansion of household level of service (in-home connections) beyond the supply capacity resulting in reduced system-wide service level—poor reliability. The commitment and ability of individuals to provide a high quality water service is limited by their operating context, and in the case of Buea, by the structure of the public private partnership, the prioritization of profit-making, and a lack of coordination between key actors. The interactions between stakeholder groups are influenced not only by the governance framework but also by the local history of the community and of individuals. Qualitative understanding of the institutional dynamics is essential to understanding this system.

When taking a context-oriented approach, it would be overwhelming to consider every one of the systems and actors impacting the reliability of services. Involving stakeholders and aiming to consult representatives of the entire community has become more common as a result of the adoption of the participation called for in IWRM, but it must be selective. As in Life Cycle Analysis, the largest scale of the system and its boundaries must be understood so that the focus can be defined according to a particular goal. The key actors in the WASH systems need to be identified and engaged so that their understanding of the system can be included. At the local or regional level, WASH utilities and water boards provide the service, however they act within the framework provided by the national level budgets and policies. Additionally, a holistic approach to resource sustainability and climate change adaptation requires an analysis of regional water uses and may include trans-boundary water basin negotiations. Public health, WASH, water resources and other ministries must communicate in order to develop a sustainable plan.

Holistic approaches demand persistence and diligence

A holistic approach requires a vast amount of data to be collected and then interpreted and is thus more time consuming.  It also requires the researcher or programme managers to immerse themselves in the local society and to have ongoing discussions with local decision makers. Moreover, integrating variations due to seasonality, gender roles, or heterogeneous population groups makes data analysis non-linear. The importance of the specific characteristics of the local situation—from unique environmental conditions to socio-political dynamics—means that solutions developed from years of work are not necessarily transferable to other communities or contexts.

The investment required for systems approaches is significant but will be more efficient and more effective over time. In many communities receiving development aid, WASH development has been ongoing for decades yet the sum of the time and effort put into multiple short term and unrelated initiatives has resulted in little lasting impact. We need to instead invest in efforts that build a sustainable future with and for the recipients rather than produce short term easily measurable ‘results; that cater to donor requirements.  Each of us has a role in rejecting simple or symptomatic solutions to poor WASH sector performance. We need to collaborate and develop a more coherent and concerted approach. NGOs can commit to supporting the strength of national and local institutions, in addition to meeting shorter-term goals in the specific communities or towns that they work in. To me as a researcher, this means developing strategic partnerships so that my work can be informative to influential stakeholders and serve as an unbiased platform for driving evidence-based decision-making and cross-sector learning.

New sustainability

The future challenges are a much larger population to serve, unpredictable environmental conditions, and (likely) mass migrations. The current disjointed and piecemeal approach will not provide viable solutions or achieve service provision at scale. Public and private utilities need to be robust and adaptable. WASH initiatives need to be integrated into master plans of their county, district, and national governments, which are ultimately responsible for realizing their citizens’ right to adequate water and sanitation.  Citizens need to be informed about the pathways for attaining their rights to be productive advocates that hold their service providers accountable and promote progress.

As we have learned in Buea, we can use strategic advocacy to increase the cooperation between sector actors, but local capacity and leadership are required to develop adaptive frameworks for evolving WASH challenges. Communication between users and providers is essential. There is no one framework that will work everywhere and no one institution that can provide service to everyone. Long term and robust WASH service provision for all requires a coordinated and country-owned approach that is catered to the context and adaptable to meet the evolving needs of the future—this is the new sustainable.

By Angela Huston, with contributions from Susan Gaskin

Angela Huston, Interdisciplinary Water and Sanitation Research, PhD candidate, Civil Engineering, McGill University, Montreal Canada.



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