USAID Needs to Bring Together Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation with Fresh Water Conservation and Climate Resilience in Development Assistance

Elizabeth Shope, Advocate, Washington, D.C.

It’s surprising that in the 21st Century, nearly 750 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people –more than one-third of the world’s population—don’t have an adequate place to go the bathroom. This is so, despite decades of work and dedicating substantial resources to reduce severe poverty, including the lack of safe drinking water and safe sanitation faced by billions of people.

I am the author of an issue brief published by the Natural Resources Defense Council today, Connecting Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene with Fresh Water Conservation and Climate Resilience: The Need to Facilitate Integration in Development Assistance, making the case that development projects intended to help these vulnerable populations need to be better integrated and take into account the potential impacts of climate change. It reveals barriers that exist today that should be overcome. And it suggests steps that the U.S. Agency for International Development, a key player in world efforts to reduce poverty, can take to improve integration in development assistance, which is critical to helping solve major humanitarian challenges.

Girls Carrying Water Home Haiti Before Earthquake Gary White waterdotorg.jpgGirls carrying water home in Haiti before the earthquake. September 2009. Photo credit: Gary White,

Delivering safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH—the pseudo-acronym used by development professionals) over the long term is dependent on having access to clean water. Halving the portion of those without safe drinking water and sanitation is one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, as WASH is critical for maintaining dignity and sustaining life. There has been progress, but there are still too many people lacking these important services, and this forward progress is being threatened. Climate change is already stressing fresh water resources, and lack of effective human waste disposal systems is causing other water sources to become contaminated with fecal matter. WASH, climate, and freshwater resources are inextricably linked, and addressing them in an integrated fashion will be more efficient and effective.

Integrating different sectors in development assistance can be a challenge, though, for several reasons:

  • Funders have a desire to see easily measurable results during short grant periods. USAID WASH grants are usually too short to lead to significant positive environmental or health impacts. This drives a focus on achieving standard indicators of success such as people with first-time access to improved water or sanitation, often without taking steps to ensure that clean water will be available in the long-term, even while fresh water resources are facing threats from climate change and other stressors.
  • Development programmers and implementers perceive funding allocations to be very specific. InCongress’s foreign assistance budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, there were line items for WASH ($365,000,000) and environment programs ($1,153,500,000). These separate budgets for seemingly separate issues can create challenges for cross-sector collaboration. 
  • There is often a lack of coordination within and between organizations and agencies working in different sectors. At USAID, there are separate departments with separate staff for the issues of global climate change and water. Implementing organizations also often focus on a specific sector—some focusing on environmental and conservation issues, and others focusing on alleviating poverty or providing WASH. While sensible, these divisions can lead to fairly narrow knowledge bases that do not always consider the full picture of different—but relevant—sectors. 

USAID, NGOs, and others have begun to realize the importance development programming that integrates WASH, freshwater conservation and climate resilience. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah wrote in a preface to USAID’s Climate Change and Development Strategy:

Consideration of climate change in strategic planning, program design, and project implementation across a wide range of development sectors is essential to the success of USAID’s mission. It is the responsibility of all development professionals to consider the impact climate change will have on their efforts and to search for opportunities to promote greener, cleaner, more resilient approaches to driving development results in areas as diverse as agriculture, health, energy production, tourism, and microenterprise.

And the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group’s Freshwater Conservation and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Integration Guidelines: A Framework for Implementation in sub-Saharan Africa makes it clear why WASH is so important for the environment: “WASH programming can directly benefit ecosystems by reducing fecal contamination on land and in water, reducing nutrient loadings to streams and lakes, making aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems healthier, and promoting more sustainable water management practices.”

Despite this understanding of the importance of and the benefits of integration, it has not become commonplace to integrate WASH, conservation and climate resilience. In order to best assist vulnerable populations facing a lack of WASH, threats from climate change, and deteriorating ecosystems, there are several steps that USAID should take to break real and perceived barriers to integration, and facilitate effective integrated development assistance:

  • Interpret Congressional mandates to achieve big picture goals and justify integrated programs. Funds designated for WASH projects can be used to safeguard our ecosystems and enhance climate change resilience in projects where doing so will help WASH projects to succeed in the long term. Likewise, funds designated for environmental protection and remediation can be used for sanitation projects in places where lack of sanitation is causing contamination of freshwater ecosystems.
  • Develop and use indicators that encourage integration. Indicators play an important role in project design, as managers generally want their efforts to measure well against indicators of success. Developing and using integrated indicators would help facilitate integrated projects. Luckily, this step is already under way. Conservation International, the African Wildlife Foundation and the Nature Conservancy co-hosted the Workshop on Integrated Indicators for Freshwater Conservation and WASH Programming in Nairobi, Kenya in July 2014. USAID’s Bureau for Africa and the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group co-sponsored the workshop. The workshop’s draft monitoring and evaluation framework and indicators for integrated programming will be shared at an event in Washington, D.C. be available on in September 2014.
  • Enhance cross-institutional coordination and communication. Strong mechanisms for regular communication are key for promoting integration. USAID’s Water Office should ensure that staff from the Global Climate Change office are included in the Water Sector Council and Strategy Implementation Group in charge of implementing its Water and Development Strategy. USAID staff focused on WASH should also be included in any regular cross-agency meetings focused on climate resilience or fresh water conservation.
  • Do not be limited by short grant periods. While short grant periods are a reality that is not likely to be changed soon, there are several steps that can facilitate the planning and implementation of longer-term projects. Setting appropriate indicators to measure both final results and intermediate steps may help with goal-setting beyond the grant timeline. Taking steps to foster community buy-in and prepare communities to implement the projects after assistance ends will also help. Finally, establishing structures for continued long-term project and method monitoring and evaluation to ensure continued, post-grant success is critical for seeing and measuring the longer-term successes and learning from aspects of projects that did not work as well. These mechanisms can range from existing regular independent surveys to building in monitoring and evaluation plans that build in resolution and learning to setting aside a portion of grant funds for long-term monitoring and evaluation or community management of the project.

As the threats to fresh water resources increase and if climate change worsens as leading scientists forecast, it will become ever more important to integrate WASH, fresh water conservation, and climate resilience projects. Development aid plays an important role in promoting this integration since it drives so much of the funding for these projects. It is time for development aid programmers and implementers to take these important steps to facilitate integrated WASH, conservation and climate resilience projects. USAID has an exciting opportunity to lead on these integration efforts. This will help broaden the reach of foreign assistance and enable more people to gain sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene.

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