Skip to main content

Systems approaches and the WASH system: from theory to useful application

Published on: 24/05/2018

Concept note about the topic of All systems go! the symposium of WASH systems

Introduction to the concept

Water, sanitation, and hygiene are services that require a robust system in order to function long term. Delivering WASH services reliably and consistently over time is far more complex and demanding than simply constructing WASH infrastructure (although getting that right is crucial).  A complex network of people and factors need to work effectively together to deliver water and sanitation services over time: taken together, these make up the WASH system.

The ‘language’ of WASH services, WASH systems and of systems approaches has emerged and gained traction in the last few years, and the Sustainable Development Goals are explicitly supportive of a systems-based understanding of development processes.  A growing number of organisations and initiatives are experimenting with and implementing systems approaches as a way to more effectively develop sustainable WASH services.

While there are different methodologies and vocabularies in use, our objective is simple and pragmatic: to identify, understand and amplify approaches that work.  The symposium will cover content ranging from whole systems conceptual frameworks to systems thinking for sector finance to technical tools for addressing specific parts of the system.

Service delivery does not occur in a vacuum—the bureaucratic, social, technical, and financial systems in which service delivery takes place constantly interact with and have effects on each other and eventually the quality of the service delivered. Those people, functions, activities, and behaviours that relate directly to WASH service provision are all part of the WASH system.

Infographic showing the various actors in the WASH system

IRC has worked with partners and colleagues in popularising the adoption of systems approaches to WASH, not least through co-convening the 2016 Sustainable WASH Symposium in Kampala. Now, three years later, and given the very rapid progress being made, we believe that the time is right to once again bring together practitioners and theoreticians of WASH systems strengthening, and systems approaches more generally, to take stock of experience to date and map the way forward.

IRC is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, so we also take the the All systems go! symposium as an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on developments in the WASH sector globally over the past half-century!


All systems go! will bring together systems thinkers and do-ers, from within and beyond WASH, to share our understanding of how systems approaches can help build sustainable and expanded WASH services. We seek to stimulate more holistic thinking to help reveal opportunities for systemic change in the WASH sector. A primary objective is the identification of the current state-of-the-art thinking and experiences in WASH systems, the development of skills and tools for moving from theory to implementation of systems approaches, an elaboration of a shared agenda for taking the learning forward.


A practitioner-focused discussion of how to deliver strong and resilient WASH systems and of how to apply systems approaches to improving WASH service delivery.

The symposium asks participants to share experiences of how they using systems thinking to address persistent challenges in WASH -- and how they measure systemic improvements.  And through invited guests from other sectors, it will provide insight into how and with what tools systems thinking and systems strengthening are employed beyond WASH. 

For whom?

The symposium is open to practitioners and theoreticians of WASH systems or the application of systems approaches to WASH.

When/ Where?

The symposium will be held on March 12 - 14, 2019 at the Fokker Terminal in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Binckhorstlaan 249
2516 BB The Hague
The Netherlands