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Published on: 10/09/2021

Photo caption: Thanks to the IRC contributors to this blog, from left to right: Lemessa, Digbijoy, Fabrizio, Sara, Jeske, Vera, Patrick and Stef for their contributions, reflections and quotes, to Angela for reviewing the text and Tettje for copy editing.

World Water Week (WWW) 2021 showcased many positive efforts aimed at achieving safe water and sanitation services to all. IRC and partners organised 29 sessions at the five day global event, which attracted 13,000 participants from 188 countries. WWW ended with a strong message from the organisers SIWI: “we have many solutions to fix the water crisis and tackle climate change, but we need political will and sufficient investments”.

This is a message we have heard before, and it's one reason IRC invests so much into researching models for better water and sanitation financing, and into advocacy targeted at executive government levels.

The theme of this year's WWW was Building Resilience Faster. In this piece we have collected reflections of IRC staff about political will, finance and sustainable, resilient WASH systems for all.

Political will

Since 2020, the Government of the Netherlands (GoN) is an official WWW partner, contributing experience and understanding of water management to solve global challenges, while complementing these experiences with learning from and working with others. “IRC has been supporting these ambitions by taking on a coordination role and supporting with related communications”, says IRC Programme Officer Sára Bori. “In 2021, GoN representatives showed unprecedented commitment as conveners or co-conveners in high level meetings. For instance, we heard from Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General for International Cooperation about how water is at the heart of the climate crisis, reemphasising the need for global political commitment to accelerating the achievement of SDG 6. See video messages from her and Tom de Bruijn, Minister for Foreign Trade and International Cooperation here. Another highlight was a collaboration with SIWI on documenting key challenges and session highlights through a cartooning initiative. Click here to see some of the drawings”. 


In November 2020, a group of international development banks and Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) launched a Call for Action towards a Water Finance Coalition. Their aim was to get international and domestic public development banks (PDBs) to increase financing for the achievement of SDG 6, the Paris agreement goals and biodiversity protection. The WWW hosted a special related session on Public development banks’ role on accelerating WASH access to all, where a global assessment report of national PDBs involvement in the water sector was launched.

“A lack of finance is one of the main reasons for unsustainable services, leaving many people without access”, says IRC WASH Systems Academy Manager Jeske Verhoeven. “Unfortunately, finance is a buzzword across the water sector that strikes terror in many WASH professionals’ hearts”.

The session “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?  Unpacking finance”, co-convened by, UNICEF and IRC, reviewed leading short courses and tools available to help water professionals get smarter about finance. Among these is the new WASH Systems Academy online course ‘Finance for sustainable WASH systems’.

Systems approaches and sustainability

Together with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Millennium Water and Alliance (MWA) and Water For People, IRC hosted a virtual World Café on how using master plans helps achieving SDG 6. Although district master plans offer a “nice way of engaging key WASH actors in the planning process as well as co-creation of planning tools”, they can also create a sense of frustration when people realise how much money is actually needed to achieve SDG 6, says IRC Ethiopia Country Director Lemessa Mekonta. In his closing reflections, IRC's CEO Patrick Moriarty commented that “the commitment to master plans and the processes that sit behind them - in which local government and other actors that support them - can articulate a vision of universal access. This may not be the only approach to systems strengthening and may not be the most important one but it is a critical one.” Scroll down to the end of the event page for an overview of master plan resources.

“Sustaining WASH services is more an evolution than a revolution”, is what Lemessa picked up from the session on Towards the next generation of sustainability monitoring and accountability. “After more than two decades there are still no perfect answers to the how-to part […] and on who should be accountable and how to ensure that accountability for sustainable WASH services is the bottom line”. Unpacking sustainability terminology into more direct and simpler terms such as ‘non-revenue water’ in urban areas may make people more accountable, Lemessa concludes.

The Netherlands Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) uses sustainability compacts, clauses and checks to ensure that the WASH programmes they fund deliver long-term sustainable services. The session on How sustainability compacts contribute to institutional sustainability looked at how they have been applied by partners in the WASH SDG programme. Lemessa concludes that still more needs to be done to “make the tool more powerful” to hold local government officials accountable. In the case of Ethiopia, Lemessa believes that the sustainability compact works well in combination with sustainability checks, district WASH master plans and district learning alliance platforms.

Resilient systems

Large-scale nature-based solutions (NBS) can help make water supply systems resilient especially in coastal or downstream areas. To be successful, though, requires better “stakeholder mapping and stakeholder conflict management than a conventional water supply process”, says IRC Associate Digbijoy Dey, who attended the session on Nature-based Solutions for Water Supply Utilities. “That makes it difficult to implement in areas where the system is poor”, he added, while indigenous systems have the advantage that they are less reliant on “foreign elements”. 

At the session on “Self-supply's potential for increased resilience and water security”, Lemessa learned that “self-supplied water is still overlooked” in Asia even though nearly one out of three households rely on it. “Supporting those using self-supply to ensure they have adequate water quality", which remains an issue for most households, “would accelerate the progress towards SDG targets for water supplies” in terms of “access, resilience and equity”. For more information read “Self-supply : filling the gaps in public water supply provision”.

Lemessa’s takeaways from the session on “Resilient WASH in schools: Transformative work for transformative times?’, was that better WASH services provide a good learning environment and that schools help students become WASH change agents for their parents.

IRC’s new Regional Adviser West Africa Fabrizio de Georgio Ferrari Trecate particularly liked the Pacific Institute’s Water Resilience Assessment Framework because it applies a systems thinking approach to dealing with shocks and stress caused, for example, by climate change. The session on Measuring climate resilience in WASH services and in communities introduced the How tough is WASH framework. Fabrizio says this allowed him “to better understand the existing gaps and challenges for monitoring resilience of WASH services and measuring progress in building community resilience through climate resilient WASH programmes”.

During the Resilient Communities in the Face of Pandemics and Climate Change session, Stef Smits presented a case study on Cost-effective programming of water and sanitation in rural areas of Latin America.


Despite the clear conclusion that political will and finance are lacking, the World Water Week programme itself focused largely on tools and methodologies. For as long as I have been in the WASH sector (nearly 40 years), it has been lamenting the lack of political will and money. In 1990, the WHO wrote that "funding limitations" was the "most serious constraint" in achieving universal access to water supply and sanitation, the goal of the UN International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD) 1981-1990 (WHO, 1990 p. 12). Fourteen years later, we learn that regional experts tell the Commission on Sustainable Development that "rapidly growing cities, lack of political will, poor technology and scanty financing were major obstacles to acceptable water and sanitation services in Latin America and Western Asia" (UNIS, 27 April 2004).

To use another worn-out WASH cliché, "business as usual" solutions - micro-finance, blended finance, domestic resource mobilisation (DRM) etc. - are not enough to finance SDG 6. WaterAid's financing blueprint calculates that we need a major transfer of grants from high-income to low-income countries equivalent to 2.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) each year for the period  2021-2025 to finance SDG 6 and all the other SDGs in Agenda 2030. Jeffrey Sachs proposed a similar radical form of wealth redistribution in his emotional speech at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in July this year. The global economic system of extracting wealth from the South to fund the ecologically unsustainable affluence of the North has to change. There is enough global wealth to provide everyone "decent living standards" (DLS), including piped water & water treatment, within planetary ecological limits, according to Jarmo Kikstra and Narasimha Rao. We need the political courage to make this happen.


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.

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