Amid a Global Pandemic, Implementing and Monitoring Sustainable WASH Solutions

Photo by Hassan Al Banna Academy for Water1st International. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Photo by Water1st International at Hassan Al Banna Academy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

By Joanne Lu

It’s been a long time since those of us in the West have been so acutely aware of our need for clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials are constantly reminding us to wash our hands – and to do it right, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing between our fingers and under our nails. That’s the best way to remove viral particles from our hands to keep them from transmitting the virus to ourselves and others, they say. But for 2.2 billion people in resource-strapped contexts – whether refugee camps, urban slums or remote rural areas – access to clean water is still an issue, making the prospect of hand-washing several times a day much harder.

Some countries and organizations have stepped up with innovative immediate solutions. In West Africa, for example, some countries have reinstituted the public handwashing stations they used during the Ebola outbreak, consisting of two buckets – one with a spigot and filled with chlorine and water; the other one placed underneath the spigot to catch wastewater. More than a dozen countries have also submitted requests for a device that PATH developed that makes chlorine out of just water, salt and a car battery.

Immediate access is what matters most in the current crisis, but access to WASH services is of utmost importance even when we’re not facing a global pandemic. It improves every aspect of a community’s well-being – their health, income, education, safety, women’s empowerment – and can prevent future disease outbreaks. But just installing WASH facilities is not enough, otherwise we’d probably be close to achieving “clean water and sanitation for all” (Sustainable Development Goal 6) already. Instead, what researchers, sector leaders and organizations are recognizing is that robust data tracking and transparency is critical for ensuring that WASH projects are successful, sustainable and inclusive.

We’ve discussed before how as many as 30 to 50 percent of WASH projects fail after just two to five years, usually because of lack of maintenance, a broken part that can’t be replaced locally, or because the solution just wasn’t practical in the local context. Water1st was founded for this very reason – because too many WASH projects fail. Instead, Water1st decided that rigorous monitoring and evaluation, including lots of field visits, had to be baked into their organizational DNA to ensure that their projects would remain functional, now and over the long-term. They’re also constantly checking whether their projects are not only producing the intended benefits, but in fact the best possible outcomes. This means that Water1st’s projects, including piped water systems with a kitchen tap and shower for each household, toilets and hygiene education, are not the cheapest up front, but they are often solutions last.

“A robust and regular monitoring system [ensures] issues are addressed early rather than towards the end of a project,” World Vision says of their own approach to WASH interventions, because corrections can only be made if we understand when and why projects fail. That’s why World Vision works closely with communities and stakeholders to track, document and respond to “every change throughout a project cycle,” good and bad. The data are then measured against standard global indicators to evaluate each project. And the evidence and lessons learned are preserved and shared to help World Vision and others improve moving forward.

Data are not only critical for fixing faulty WASH systems, but also for better planning and decision-making to achieve SDG 6. Such planning creates a clearer picture of just how much more needs to be invested in urban and rural WASH systems. Data visualization through platforms like Tableau helps organizations like Splash literally see on a map where there are gaps in WASH service provision and how much they need to scale up year on year in order to reach their goals. Sometimes data reveal that the gap is not a lack of facilities, but of usage. That’s how Splash determined that behavioral nudges were needed – like mirrors above school handwashing stations that entice kids to spend time at the sinks, washing their hands while checking themselves out.

But organizations like WaterAid have learned that not all data are equal. In order to be truly useful, data must be accurate, timely, and as complete as possible. When WaterAid switched from organizing its data in Excel spreadsheets to a mobile online platform called mWater in 2014, the organization was able to streamline its efforts in data collection, reduce errors and inconsistencies (like double-counting and incorrect spellings of names for communities and institutions), build a large multi-year database, and conduct much more meaningful analyses. Data also could be disaggregated by gender, location, donor, partners, projects or funding, and their partners in the field could monitor and track progress at the community, sub-district and district levels.

Open and mobile data also empowers citizens to obtain the WASH services they need. In Zimbabwe, for example, UNICEF helped the government implement a real-time monitoring system. Instead of waiting for government field monitors to make their rounds before a deficiency is reported, people in rural communities can now just send an SMS directly to the government whenever a WASH service needs to be fixed. (Similarly, companies and organizations are stepping up with mobile reporting platforms for COVID-19 to help trace where the virus is spreading, so we can better contain it.) When organizations improve data tracking and analysis now, they can pass those tools along to governments and help ensure success in the long-run, when those governments take over responsibility for large-scale WASH services.

When large amounts of data can be used and shared in meaningful ways, it also holds providers accountable. Data transparency not only ensures that reported results are real, but it also builds trust from donors, whose contributions are critical for achieving clean water and sanitation for all. As Water 1st puts it: “We follow up. We routinely visit our projects to evaluate our work, to hold our partners accountable, and to share and exchange knowledge. We make sure each project is providing the intended benefits and generating the best possible outcomes. You can be confident that your donation is spent wisely and is making a real difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

Data tracking and transparency can seem like a risky proposition if it means being open and honest about failures. But it is also absolutely critical if we want to ensure that every person, household and community has access to the WASH services they need – especially in times like these, when proper hygiene is the best way to stop a global pandemic.​


The following GlobalWA members are working to provide clean water to vulnerable communities around the world:

Agros International’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty and create paths to prosperity for farming families in rural Latin America. Founded in 1984, Agros advances a holistic socioeconomic development model of economic and social development through four key opportunity areas: land ownership, market-led agriculture, financial empowerment, and health & well-being. Its model recognizes the importance of water as an essential element of personal, public, and environmental health. Agros collaborates with government offices and other NGOs in rural areas and trains community leaders amongst the families it serves in order to create WASH initiatives, protect water resources, and implement environmentally friendly irrigation programs. Agros focuses on a landscape approach that includes reforesting campaigns and water management protocols to secure long-term availability of clean water. To date, 100% of the families living in an Agros village have access to clean water, basic sanitation services, and preventive health education. Additionally, families are learning to use environmentally friendly farming techniques and equipment to reduce water usage, securing its availability for future generations.

Friendly Water for the World
Founded in 2010, Friendly Water for the World is a dynamic, rapidly growing, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Olympia, WA. Its mission is to expand global access to low-cost clean water technologies and information about health and sanitation through knowledge-sharing, training, applied research, community-building, peacemaking, and efforts at sustainability. The organization empowers communities abroad to take care of their own clean water needs, even as it empowers people in the U.S. to make a real difference. Friendly Water for the World currently works in 15 countries, and has assisted more than 190 marginalized and oppressed rural communities – including widows with HIV, people with albinism, survivors of war-time rape, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, indigenous tribes, and unemployed youth – ensure their own safe drinking water while becoming employed in the process.

Hands for Peacemaking Foundation
Many villages that populate the mountainous areas of NW Guatemala are continually faced with a daily struggle to obtain water for survival. Since most village locations were based on available land, and not by the availability of natural resources, they often lack basic water resources. Many water sources have dried up due to the over-harvesting of trees to be used for firewood – an example of the domino effect that one resource has on another. Hands for Peacemaking Foundation (HFPF) has partnered with villages to install water storage tanks. These simple but effective means to collect water during the rainy season are coupled with water filters to meet the basic needs. The resulting water system doesn’t replace a well or spring, but it does provide emergency water that can mean life or death for villagers. HFPF has included the introduction of forest management in its training and education of villages after the installation of catchment systems. To date, the organization has installed 459 water catchment systems and 327 water filters in 19 villages.

The Hunger Project
The Hunger Project’s holistic approach in Africa, South Asia and Latin America empowers women and men living in rural villages to become the agents of their own development and sustainably overcome hunger and poverty. Through its WASH programs, The Hunger Project empowers rural communities to ensure they have access to clean water and improved sanitation, the capacity to develop new water sources, and the information to implement water conservation techniques. Since 2011, nearly 871,000 people have participated in The Hunger Project’s WASH skill or awareness building activities and the organization has trained over 20,000 local leaders in building community skills and awareness around water and sanitation.

Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps helps people around the world get clean water by providing water during emergencies, building wells to reduce long treks (often made by vulnerable girls and women), repairing damaged water infrastructure and helping construct reservoirs to ensure communities have access to clean water in the future. In Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps restored a community’s water infrastructure to provide clean and safe water for over 43,000 people. In turn, this also significantly reduced the distance girls had to travel to collect drinking water for their families. During emergencies, access to clean water plays a vital role in preventing disease outbreaks and other water-borne illnesses. In response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three quarters of the population lack access to clean water, Mercy Corps has provided over 600,000 displaced people with safe drinking water to help keep their families healthy and prevent disease. In 2018, Mercy Corps connected more than 3 million people to clean water and hygiene and sanitation facilities during emergencies across the globe.

Path from Poverty
In Kenya, with unclean water sources often miles from villages, woman and girls are forced to spend hours each day simply finding and transporting water. It is not safe for women and girls to fetch water in the very early hours of the morning. The daily average for a Kenya woman is 4-6 hours of walking for clean water. The typical container used for water collection in Africa, the jerry can, weighs over 40 pounds when it’s completely full. With much of one’s day already consumed by meeting basic needs, there isn’t time for much else. The hours lost to gathering water are often the difference between the time to do a trade and earn a living and not. Path From Poverty works to end this daily hardship and is putting a stop to girls lives being at risk by providing clean, safe water at the homes of women and their families. Empowering women, teaching them to work together, start a micro enterprise, and pool resources, Path From Poverty is changing lives and giving back the time lost fetching water so girls can go to school, women can earn much-needed income, and they can be safe from rape and abduction.

Splash is a nonprofit organization that designs child-focused water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH), and menstrual health solutions with governments in some of the world’s biggest, low-resource cities. Through Project WISE (WASH-in-Schools for Everyone), Splash aims to reach every school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Kolkata, India, with WASH infrastructure, behavior change programs, and strengthened menstrual health services, benefiting one million children by 2023. Splash’s approach to WASH includes high-quality water filtration systems, durable drinking and hand washing stations, improved toilets, teacher training, and hygiene education to ensure that kids learn healthy habits. Their focus on hygiene, through handwashing with soap, is critical to stopping the spread of disease. To date, Splash has completed over 2,000 projects at child-serving institutions, including schools, hospitals, shelters and orphanages. Splash has reached nearly 600,000 children in eight countries (China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam).

Water1st International
Water1st is unwavering in its commitment to projects that provide households, schools, clinics and community centers with enough water to drink, cook, wash hands, flush toilets, bathe, clean clothes, wash dishes, and sanitize household surfaces. There has never been a better time to justify an investment in high-quality infrastructure for clean water and toilets for the world’s most vulnerable people. The return on this investment will impact us all for generations to come. Water1st’s country programs in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Honduras are busy at work, building new water systems and providing outreach to communities about how to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. In Ethiopia and Honduras, the 2020 goal of Water1st is to connect 675 more households to piped water systems. In Bangladesh, the organization is providing support to 35,000 people, building new water systems and providing support to households to prevent the spread of coronavirus. More information about Water1st’s COVID-19 response can be found here.

WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. As the leading international clean water nonprofit, WaterAid works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. In the face of the COVID-19 threat, WaterAid is scaling its efforts to improve handwashing and hygiene education in every country where it works. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 26.4 million people with clean water and 26.3 million people with decent toilets.

World Vision
World Vision (WV) believes that every child deserves clean water. WV is focused with partners on providing children, their families, and communities with quality, sustainable access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services. In the last 4 years, WV reached 16.1 million people with clean water because of a unique community engagement model and global footprint. In response to COVID-19, WV is scaling up its water and health efforts in 17 initial priority countries, aiming to reach 22.6 million people, half of them children, over the next 6 months with protective and hygiene items. This includes scaling up hand washing stations in health clinics and working with more than 250,000 community health workers to help reach communities to teach critical behaviors to prevent the spread of infectious disease. In 2019 alone, WV reached 4.3 million people with hand washing behavior change education and facilitated the building of nearly half a million hand washing facilities. WV is concerned that the COVID-19 outbreak could disproportionately affect women and girls. This is one of the reasons WV is focused on equipping and empowering women and girls in every aspect of our work so they can reach their full potential.