SWA at the 7th World Water Forum: What will it take to reach universal access to sanitation?

27 Mar, 2015

SWA kicked-off the sanitation thematic stream at the 7th World Water Forum on Monday, 13 April with its session on “Reaching Universal Access to Sanitation”. Catarina de Albuquerque, SWA Vice-chair, moderated the session, which brought together leading experts who debated about what reaching universal access to sanitation would mean.


Three keynote presentations

The meeting structure featured three keynote presentations by eminent speakers and then a panel and plenary discussion.

Eddie Perez (download his presentation), former Lead Sanitation Specialist at the World Bank, summarised the significant advances that had been made in recent years on sanitation and expressed optimism that universal access was attainable. According to Mr. Perez, the main challenges were in implementing policies and increasing financing. Moreover, the sector needs to move away from focusing on infrastructure and to tackle the “full spectrum” of behaviour change, from increasing sanitation demand to innovative financing. He also identified many gaps in the sector’s knowledge, especially in implementing large scale and affordable urban sanitation solutions. He concluded, universal access will require a 250% increase in delivery.

Dr Lee Sang-Mu (download his speaking notes), President of the Korea Rural Community Corporation, presented an analysis of how South Korea’s went from poverty and low sanitation access figures in the 1960s to the 100% sanitation coverage achieved today, in one single generation. His analysis gave three clear conclusions: 1) sanitation improvements were not the by-products of economic prosperity but rather the product of central and local governments’ prioritization of sanitation fuelled by community’s collective desire for improvement. It created demand and responded to this demand. 2) In rural areas in particular the speed and level of advance would not have been possible without large-scale voluntary and formal technical assistance and 3) third key to Korea‘s success in reaching universal sanitation was focussing on mass education and village leadership education in particular.

In his video address, Sanjay Wijesekera, Associate Director of the WASH Programme Division at the UNICEF, described the remarkable growth of UNICEF’s programming support to assist countries achieve universal access to sanitation, which has included policy and advocacy support, nurturing innovation as well as direct implementation. According to Mr. Wijesekera, one of the main global challenges is inequity of access, so UNICEF’s focus has been on eliminating open defecation and getting the poorest and most disadvantaged populations onto the first rung of the sanitation ladder. He underlined that the trigger to change is firstly to understand the nature of the problem, and identify ways of strengthening the demand and supply sides. Where the problem is behaviour change, excellent results have been achieved through social movements for improved sanitation and establishing a social norm for using a toilet. He drew on different contexts (Zambia, Mali, the Philippines and Nepal) to show different approaches and lessons learnt. In all these contexts Mr. Wijesekera concluded that progress towards universal access to sanitation was achieved by strong political leadership, as well as influencing opinion. Managing large-scale change also requires investing in systems that can reinforce social norms and provide effective platforms for coordination action in villages as well as across districts and national institutions. This momentum must be sustained over 10 to 15 years to achieve the large-scale outcomes needed.

A dynamic debate

The presentations provoked a discussion and panelists highlighted key challenges and solutions to reach universal coverage. Orlando Hernandez, Senior Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor, GHPN, emphasized the need to go beyond building infrastructures and to look at the correct use and disposal of sanitation sludge. Hanna Woodburn, Deputy Secretariat Director of the PPPHW, reminded the audience of the integrated nature of sanitation with other issues such as hygiene improvement and menstrual hygiene or education. Sophie Tremolet, WHO representative, stressed the importance of establishing a financing mechanism. For her, one of the keys to universal coverage is micro-finance support for sanitation.

Identifying the sector’s inequalities in access, the panellists underlined the complexity of reaching universal access to sanitation. However, they shared the belief that it is possible to reach it and agreed it is no so much about infrastructure, but more about shifting behaviours. This will require different approaches and different buy-ins.

In drawing the session to a conclusion, Catarina de Albuquerque highlighted the progress already made in prioritizing sanitation and in the recognition of sanitation in the post-2015 agenda. There is now a far greater appreciation of sanitation as a full cycle, and not just an access issue. The examples given during the session, where national and local leaders have already achieved large scale working sanitation systems, give us cause for optimism: but much work needs to be done!

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