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Terminating the problem of unsafe water and sanitation services

Published on: 19/10/2021

Recently I listened to a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger on how the climate movement is stuck and needs to reset. I think our approach to solving the water and sanitation crisis could help.

I recently listened to a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Austrian Climate Summit. He lamented about the stagnation and apathy in the movement to combat climate change.  People are ‘stuck in despair and confusion,’ he said, struggling to grasp what it means for the future of our species, which leaves them frozen and unable to take a single step forward.  Headlines like: ‘The icebergs are melting’, ‘Don’t use plastic’, ‘1.5 degrees is a tipping point’, ‘We should be carbon free’ and ‘It's all connected’. What do they really mean?

Similar to the ‘paralysis by analysis’ that we talk about as systems thinkers and leaders, too much information can be counterproductive. This is especially when it is alarming and there is no clear strategic guidance to help us sort through it to find a positive way forward.

Being the action-movie hero that he is, Schwarzenegger (also known as The Terminator), proposed that we need a single shared enemy around which we can rally the public, and international governments, to create a path toward victory and a better future. Schwarzenegger proposes we call this enemy ‘pollution,’ as a useful oversimplification - a clear visual guide - something around which we can create an action plan. ‘Pollution is bad… pollution makes my kids sick… we need to stop polluting in our cities and with the way we live.’ Voilà, the antagonist in our plot to reverse climate change has emerged.

With the problem clear, solutions begin to surface and make sense. The public can participate; we could pollute less by eating vegetarian food, because animal farms create a lot of pollution. We could pollute less by taking the train, because planes leave that cloud of smoke. Our country could pollute less by changing how we produce energy, and by consuming less of it overall.

With a shared (if not simplistic) vision of what the problem is, a wide spectrum of citizens and businesses can start to imagine solutions that they can contribute to, while calling on government and business leaders to be the protagonists for leading our journey toward triumph.

Is ‘The Terminator’ a visionary? I’m not sure. But what he says resonates with my experiences in the water and sanitation sector. And I would argue that our sector is far ahead of the climate movement in terms of leadership.

Workshop with learning alliance in Kabarole, incl. District Councillor, District Engineer, Health Officer, NGO representative

A strategy workshop with the learning alliance in Kabarole District, including a District Councillor, District Engineer, Health Officer, and a representative of an environmental NGO. Photo credit: IRC Uganda

In my research on public drinking water safety, I have seen that a vision-led approach to solving complex problems can surface viable solutions from confusion and despair. I’ve seen this in district council meetings, national ministerial dialogues, and Watershed stakeholders workshops. A shared vision and goal, a strategy to achieve it, and a set of manageable tasks to start pursuing that goal are enough to get started with an incremental, or even a radical, change agenda.  

Taking the example of Uganda 

In our recent article in the International Journal of Water Resources Developmentwe wrote about the drinking water systems transformation underway in Uganda. Uganda’s [national] Vision 2040 calls for piped drinking water for all and establishes a palpable vision to move ‘from a peasant to a modern and prosperous society’ in 30 years. Supported by Sustainable Development Goal Targets and a series of National Development Plans, the direction of travel is clear. What does success look like? The picture is on the cover: Rockets, high speed trains, excellence across the board. Including universal safely managed drinking water services.

Cover image of Uganda Vision 2040

 

Globally, public service systems take decades, or centuries, to develop; this is usually achieved through gradual (if not meandering) social and technical change. The government alone cannot command instant change, but it can provide a vision, guidance, and coherence between short- and long-term policy (Rotmans et al.,2001).

Vision 2040 provides a framework within which other actors can innovate and experiment to contribute to the desired change. The government uses incentives and disincentives, for example corporate subsidies and regulation, to encourage (or force) other actors to support its strategy. The precise modalities for achieving Uganda Vision 2040 are not known from the start, but they are discovered over time through collective action and adaptive management in pursuit of the clearly established vision; these include regulatory mechanisms, tariff systems, operation and maintenance frameworks, etc.

This also includes guiding decentralised actors to understand and implement the national agenda. A learning alliance has been established in Kabarole District, Uganda, to help pursue the drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene targets at district level through the identification of solutions that also show promise for scaling nationally. At the heart of this, is the Kabarole District WASH Master Plan 2018-2030.

Our paper describes IRC’s use of a scenario planning exercise to support this process with the learning alliance. Using GIS maps to simulate different possible future scenarios (e.g., water resource degradation or massive piped water extension), we were able to bring diverse stakeholders to a shared understanding of what the future of drinking water services might look like, both positive and negative. 

Fig 1aFig 1bFig 1cFig 1d 

Figure 1: Current situation and future scenarios in Kabarole district. From Left to right : a) water points in 2019, where pink dots are shallow wells/springs, blue are stand taps and deep boreholes; b) 2030 scenario of water resource degradation eliminating shallow sources c) piped network coverage areas in 2019 d) 2030 scenario of expanded piped networks. See Huston et al, (2021).

The scenarios were not intended to be predictive; they were used to prompt a wide range of stakeholders to think creatively together about solutions, and to become invested in helping to shape the future. Aside from the ideas that we came up with, stakeholders left the scenario development exercise with a more refined understanding of the vision they were trying to achieve, and more ideas about what they, as individuals and organisations, could do to help get there. 

Vision, strategy, plan, action

The challenge of achieving universal drinking water services, in even one district, is enormous. But as Schwarzenegger warned in his speech, ‘the constant [focus on] how huge the obstacles are, at some point undermines [peoples’] will to accept and to act.’  When we are working with district councillors, church ministers, civil society leaders, water resource engineers, and more - it is essential that people accept the challenge, then immediately feel empowered and motivated to overcome it.

Does the vision have to be perfect? No. Does the strategy have to have all the details worked out in order to start? No. What is important is that the people involved come to a shared understanding of the current problem and a relatively aligned long-term vision of what the solutions might be. Then, we can move from frozen and daunted toward alert, taking concrete steps to move forward.

If our journey to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 and reverse climate change were an action film? Advice from Mr. Schwarzenegger: 'no one is going to invest huge sums of money in a movie where there is no hope.'

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