Sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene services: where does my research fit in?

I’m going to be at a WaterAid West Africa workshop next week to discuss the challenges to the sustainability of rural water services in the region and help plan action research in each of WaterAid’s country programmes to address these problems.

The process is going to be based around the wider Sustainability Framework that WaterAid published this month, which also considers sanitation, hygiene and urban water supply. The full document and press release is available on the WaterAid website. Put simply:

Sustainability is about whether or not WASH services and good hygiene practices continue to work and deliver benefits over time. No time limit is set on those continued services, behaviour changes and outcomes. In other words, sustainability is about lasting benefits achieved through the continued enjoyment of water supply and sanitation services and hygiene practices.

Why has sustainability been such a problem in the WASH sector? The document identifies three reasons which stand out:

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Policy-based evidence making

For all researchers hoping that their work might be able to positively influence a government’s policies, British political comedy TV shows are a good reality check. Hat tips to Aid Thoughts and Roving Bandit for the following gems from Yes, Prime Minister and The Thick Of It respectively, showing how (not) to design surveys or seek expert advice (strong language warning for the second clip).


Sponsor an African spreadsheet (and help water point monitoring)

A great ad from Engineers Without Borders Canada about water point monitoring in Malawi, working with local governments and WaterAid, amongst others:


Water point mapping in a Mali village: who drinks from where?

Understanding where people choose to drink from when they live in a village with multiple water sources (including both ‘improved’ and ‘unimproved’ water points) is a key aspect of my research. I’ve been using simple household surveys to ask this question, and I’m now beginning to visualise the data using the Water Point Mapper tool developed by WaterAid. The tool is free and easy to use, employing a combination of GPS data, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet mapper, and Google Earth. You can download the mapper, a manual and example maps from the website. The Water Point Mapper is designed to identify each water point with a colour-coded symbol. Depending on the type of information you want to display, this symbol can represent various indicators. For example, this sample map from the website shows the functionality of water points in an area:

Maps can also be generated with symbols to represent the number of users at the water point, the type of water source, the revenue collection system used, and various other characteristics (click to see the examples from the Water Point Mapper website). The mapper tool also collates this information to allow comparison of different areas (such as sub-districts or districts), which can be coloured according to the indicators.

However, for this analysis I have adapted the tool to show individual households rather than water points, because I am interested in detailed behaviour at village level. In this example of one of the villages where my research is ongoing, each coloured point on the map represents a household and the colour of the point represents the type of water source used by the household for drinking:

  • Blue = drilled borehole fitted with a handpump (an ‘improved’ source according to international definitions and national norms).
  • Yellow = modern hand-dug well with concrete lining, metal cover and bucket to draw water (also considered ‘improved’, but with an increased risk of contamination if users leave the lid open or leave the bucket on the ground).
  • Red = traditional hand-dug well, usually with no lining or cover (an unimproved source because of the high likelihood of contamination of the water).

The map shows that about a quarter of the households in the village use traditional wells, rather than improved sources, and that all but one of these households are in the western side of the community.

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Anthropologists on aid workers; aid workers on themselves

From an interview with the editors of the new book Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland:

… this research is still ongoing, but my main sense is that aid workers aren’t acknowledged enough—or not in the right way. The tendency to present them as either unselfish heroes or self-serving villains is unhelpful. So my main recommendation would be to take aid workers seriously, not as ciphers, but as three-dimensional, complex and fallible people.

This is a useful reminder of what should be an obvious point. The editors also discuss some of the differences and similarities between local and expatriate aid workers, how life in “Aidland” has changed in recent years, and shifting alliances between different “communities” of aid workers. However we probably didn’t need anthropologists to tell us that aid workers can get lonely and like watching DVDs. What is more interesting is to consider how aid workers’ beliefs, motivations and personalities affect the impact they have on others. I hope the book goes further into this; I’ll find out when it’s available for Kindle.

In the meantime, a simple but smart video from last year’s World Humanitarian Day makes a similar point (although to be more representative of aid work there probably should be fewer white faces and more people in offices):

And finally, for Friday afternoon, here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at how (expat) aid workers see themselves.