By Donald John MacAllister
10 April 2019
I recently attended the IRC WASH systems symposium that took place in The Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands, from the 12 – 14 March 2019.
The symposium focussed on WASH systems and systems thinking in the WASH sector. The event aimed to increase understanding of how systems approaches can help build sustainable and expanded WASH services around the world.
Broken pumps were identified as a symptom of broken systems and were contrasted with tap water supplies that are normal in the western world and which indicate functional systems. The need for broad and systematic thinking and collaboration across different organisations, sectors and skill sets was strongly emphasised. The One WASH programme in Ethiopia and The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India campaign) programme in India, both government led programmes, were cited as highly successful examples of systems approaches that are delivering positive change. Sessions relevant to UPGRo included discussions of novel techniques for groundwater supply monitoring in fragile states, water safety planning, and piped water and self-supply in rural and urban environments. Sessions also focussed on data and use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to maximise benefit from routinely collected and/or publicly available data.
Work from the Hidden Crisis project was presented in the water theme in a session called ‘Overcoming rural water supply challenges’, which included contributions from academia and NGOs. It was recognised early in the session that point source water supplies, including hand pumped boreholes, serve the vast majority of people in rural SSA and are also growing at the fastest rate, and that this is likely to be the case for some time to come.
There were five presenters, four of these focussed on various aspects of point source water supplies in SSA, and a fifth presentation discussed piped water systems in rural Nepal. I presented work from our detailed analysis of hand pumped borehole functionality which forms the second phase of the Hidden Crisis project. My presentation focused on the some of the emerging findings to the influence of water levels, aquifer properties and pump materials on hand pumped borehole functionality in Ethiopia. Other contributions to the session included institutional aspects of rural water supply in Kenya by fellow UPGRo researchers from Oxford University; challenges of finance, governance and technology in Nepal by Oxfam; and, problems with supply chains in Ethiopia by CARE.
A panel discussion focussed on some key questions within the rural water supply sector, focusing on technology and the institutional context of rural water supply. Challenges with community management, user satisfaction, motivation and finance were also discussed. Gaps in the supporting environment were highlighted as crucial weak points in rural water systems, including high vacancy rates and low capacity in district water offices. Badly designed drilling contracts and lack of hydrogeological oversight were also discussed. Political will was highlighted as central to achieving higher success rates and long term sustainability in the rural water supply sector.
The symposium provoked many interesting discussions on a range of topics relevant to Hidden Crisis, and UPGRo more broadly, and was an important audience for communicating the emerging findings from our research. The need to take a systems approach was central to the discussions and advocated as an innovative way of achieving universal access to safe and sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene. As the systems approach aims to understand the whole WASH system it may be a good opportunity for hydrogeologists, and technicians more generally, to engage more in the discussion around achievement of SDG6, as groundwater is often a key part of the WASH system.