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Published on: 19/12/2023

Water, sanitation and solid waste management are complex systems

For safely managed water, sanitation and solid waste services the entire service chain needs to be in place and functioning. The water, sanitation and solid waste service chains are all connected (interlinked). Weak or missing links in one chain have negative effects on other chains.

For example, open defecation can pollute open water bodies from which water for domestic purposes is abstracted. The same goes for solid waste that it is not collected, transported, processed, or recovered. It might end up in open drains and thereby limiting the carrying capacity of these drains to cope with greywater and or rainwater runoff. Toilets that overflow or that are connected directly to the same drains will create an even bigger problem particularly when these drains are blocked by solid waste or overflowing with excessive volumes of grey water.

Check out the infographic below which shows how water, sanitation and solid waste services are interlinked.

The water, sanitation and solid waste service chains (Credits: Erick Baetings, IRC, 2023)

As the image shows, delivering safe water, sanitation and solid waste services is a complex system involving many actors, factors and the links between them. Safely managed services therefore require a holistic approach that recognises the complexity and fundamentally interlinked nature of the real world.

Instead of trying to ignore complexity – for example, by focusing on a specific, time-limited project or just one of the three service chains – systems thinking enables you to engage with complexity in the belief that doing so will lead to solutions that are more meaningful and more sustainable.

Service delivery improvement requires systems strengthening

For each of these processes to function efficiently and sustainably the enabling environment and all the building blocks need to be present and working at least minimally; institutions, monitoring, planning, finance, regulation etc. Systems strengthening of safe water and sanitation services means making sure all processes are in place and functioning.

While delivering safe water and sanitation services will always be complicated it is often made needlessly complex. Poorly defined service delivery models mean lack of clarity. It's not clear who is permitted to provide what type of service - which discourages investment. It is unclear who can set a tariff, or how it can be reinforced. Local government and national utilities may follow separate and competing policies and so on.

Working through these complexities to get a clear picture of who (what type of organisation) is allowed to offer what type of service to what type of customer is a critical part of systems change and essential to understand in the context of systems strengthening.

In practice, the creation or strengthening of each building block is slightly different for each service delivery model. For example, regulations for an urban utility will differ from those for community management. The same goes for finance, monitoring or policy and legislation etc.

System strengthening or changing?

Engaging with this complexity requires the ability to break it down, make it manageable and simplify it to a practical level as IRC does with the nine building blocks of sustainable WASH systems and looking at service delivery as interconnected chains with multiple service delivery models.

By assessing the status of each building block and the linkages between them, we can identify weak points and target their interventions for greater effect. Putting building blocks in place is not a simple one-off activity. It's a progressive and iterative process. Strengthening one building block can lead to positive changes in others.

Depending on the strengths and weaknesses analysis of the system that is in place, you can decide if the system needs strengthening or changing.

Linked resources

WASH systems strengthening: The basics. This online course covers the basic concepts of water, sanitation and hygiene systems strengthening. It's about understanding how to achieve sustainable service delivery for all and how to function effectively in the process. It is available in English, French and Spanish.

Building blocks of sustainable WASH systems. The water, sanitation and hygiene systems strengthening approach looks at the system through the lens of nine critical "building blocks" like monitoring, finance and policy and legislation. Each session in this online course focuses on one of these building blocks of a sustainable system and introduces tools and methodologies to start applying the approach and assess the strength of the system in your context.

In this podcast (3 min), Erick Baetings, sanitation expert at IRC, talks about the essential elements of sanitation systems strengthening. Essential elements of sanitation systems strengthening :: IRC (

In this podcast (3 min), Erick Baetings, sanitation expert at IRC, talks about the main challenges in strengthening sanitation service delivery he has experienced over the last 20-40 years. Main challenges in strengthening sanitation service delivery :: IRC (

Towards systemic change in urban sanitation. IRC Working Paper on why a whole-system approach offers a solution to addressing the debilitating impacts of the unsatisfactory implementation of current sanitation approaches in urban contexts. Paper by Galli, G., Nothomb, C. and Baetings, E., 2014. The Hague: IRC. The paper can be downloaded


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