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Published on: 26/01/2017

IRC partner Akvo will launch a smartphone-based drinking water testing system this year. Photo: Akvo

In October 2016, IRC and Plan organised a roundtable with the provocative title "What's New Pussycat? How Tom Jones inspired better learning and collaboration in WASH". A month later, there was another "What's new" event. This time with The Guardian as organiser. They invited an expert panel to share their thoughts on innovation in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. What did they think was needed to make innovation succeed and what did they leave out?

The expert panel suggested several ways to stimulate innovation:

  • Think beyond the sector (circular economy)
  • Offer innovation prizes
  • Focus on users: create incentives, employ community-centred design and get buy-in
  • Use mobile technology
  • Create innovation standards
  • Accept and share failures

The article will elaborate on the expert panel’s suggestions with some exciting examples of the latest innovations.

WASH and the circular economy

In 2016 the sector embraced the principles of the circular economy. The Toilet Board Coalition published a thought piece on how the sanitation sector needed to transform “to a commercially valuable, self-sustaining, biological system”. In the eyes of the International Water Association (IWA), transitioning water utilities to a circular economy was an opportunity “to accelerate and scale-up recent scientific and technological advances that support greater efficiency in the sector”.  In May 2016, IRC and VIA Water invited renowned architect and circular economy visionary Thomas Rau to help Dutch WASH experts to step out of their comfort zone.

Adding waste to the water-energy-food nexus

A recent Nexus Network think piece includes a plea to move away from the "water-centric paradigm" of the water-energy-food nexus and add waste as a component. Waste is both a health hazard and a recoverable resource impacting water, energy and food. A 2015 piece from the same network asks us to imagine a sewerless society. Pritpal Randhawa, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, spoke on Managing urban waste from nexus perspective for resilient and sustainable cities at an #UrbanNexus event in May 2016. In October 2015, Wageningen University started a new research programme on The urban Nexus of food, water, energy and the environment. Kampala is one of the case studies being developed in a related post-doc project.

WASH integrated in slum revitalisation

Monash University, Australia, is leading a groundbreaking multidisciplinary project to provide water and sanitation services in slums. The AUD $27 million (US$ 20.4 million) five year project has a research component funded by the Welcome Trust while the Asian Development Bank covers infrastructure and construction costs. Using the Water Sensitive Cities approach developed by Monash University, up to 7,200 people in 24 low-income settlements in Indonesia and Fiji will benefit from decentralised water and sanitation systems as well as from improved flood protection, vector control, drainage and housing (see the video below). Read more about the project on the Monash University website and in an article by Elle Hunt published in The Guardian.

Innovation prizes

IRC has been involved in two quite different sanitation innovation challenges. The first one, the Sanitation Innovation Accelerator was aimed at entrepreneurs in India. In contrast, the target group of the Sanitation Challenge for Ghana are local government bodies. The Ghanaian challenge is one of two WASH innovation prizes designed by the Ideas to Impact consortium: the other being the Dreampipe Challenge for Non Revenue Water (NRW) reduction. Other examples are the Toilet Accelerator of the Toilet Board Coalition, VIA Water, the DFAT-sponsored Civil Society Innovation Award and WASH for Life call of USAID's Development Innovation Ventures competition. 

Going mobile

Mayank Midha, managing partner of GARV Toilets and winner of the above-mentioned Sanitation Innovation Accelerator believes public toilets should be a hyper-local marketplace where visitors can access a free Wi-Fi hotspot and recharge their mobile phones. This year will see the launch of Akvo Caddisfly. Real time water quality data is shared via Akvo's data collection platform Akvo Flow - a platform now used by nearly 260 organisations, including IRC Ghana in the SMARTerWASH project. Akvo competitor mWater boasts over 10,000 users for its mobile WASH monitoring apps. Mumbai-based m.Paani started as an app-based loyalty programme to earn credits towards financing for community water and sanitation infrastructure. Now it has developed into a general purpose loyalty service for small businesses. In December 2016, India's Ministry of Urban Development launched the Google Toilet Locator app, covering over 6,200 public toilets in 7 Indian cities.

Water financing facility

The Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance (The Lab) endorsed the Dutch Water Financing Facility (WFF) in June 2016. The WFF will mobilise large-scale domestic private finance to strengthen water utilities in countries subject to climate-related water stress. The first pilot is Kenya, where the Dutch government has provided € 10 million for the Kenya Innovative Finance Facility for Water (KIFFWA). IRC supported the development of the WFF concept.

Sustainability instruments

The new WASH aid strategy of the Netherlands government introduces a far reaching measure to ensure sustainable service delivery. As of 2017, all new Dutch-funded WASH grants must incorporate a 15-year guarantee for sustainability clause. Experiences on the use of instruments, such as the sustainability clause, frameworks and checks were the topic of an IRC event in November 2016.

Lobby and advocacy

In 2015-2016, IRC Burkina Faso ran an innovative advocacy campaign that helped make water a key electoral issue. Cartoons, billboards and a meeting with the new president were part of the campaign. WaterAid and partners made local government heroes the focus of a new guide for rights-based WASH advocacy. The guide is based on customer centric communication principles of content marketing. Finally, a salute to the creative students of the Farook Institute of Management Studies who thought up this innovative water awareness-raising campaign (see video below).

 Need more inspiration? See the "Useful links" below.


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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