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Reflections from inside the beltway – what did the WASH Sustainability Forum achieve?

By: Harold Lockwood, Aguaconsult and Triple-S

Just back from the WASH sustainability forum in Washington DC and as the dust settles, it is time to pick up on the blog I wrote in anticipation of the two days of discussion, reflection, and sharing. How did it all go? Did the earth move under our feet? Well, perhaps predictably the answer to that one is ‘no’ – very few one-off meetings or events are earth-shattering in that sense – but all in all, it was a good meeting and a good week.

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My main take away message is an overwhelmingly positive one. From the meeting, it is clear that the focus of debate and stated intent continues to shift; and we are seeing signs of change in action too. There is a real momentum around sustainability in WASH and even though, as pointed out in the meeting, this can be a rather ‘mushy’ tagline, we are increasingly successful in breaking this down to its constituent parts and being specific about what ‘sustainbility’ really means in practice–the planning and delivering of indefinite water and sanitation services and monitoring these services over time (rather than just the hardware), of regulating and supporting service providers, of replacing assets over time. As Jae So, Manager of the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) of the World Bank, summed up in her closing remarks, since the last forum in January 2011 collectively in the  sector ‘we’ve made huge strides over last few years to create common framework for talking about sustainable services’. It’s great to get this kind of recognition and endorsement from such a leading sector institution as WSP.

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Despite some predictably unpredictable technical problems on the AV side, the WASH Sustainability forum event got out of the starting blocks with an inspiring address by José Louis Irigoyen of the World Bank, who as the meeting host, reinforced the concepts of investing not only in hardware but in the institutions that deliver a service, very much with government in the lead. In fact the event was topped and tailed by senior representatives of the World Bank and the Water and Sanitaiton Program, including the Bank’s Water Anchor, but it was a shame that more core Bank staff such as the Task Team Leaders could not be with us throughout the day to share their very significant experience and knowledge.

Overall we had a big, active and great group of people, at around 150 and representing some 80 organisations which meant that there were lots of points of view and a wide range of experience to share. I also noted that along with the old timers who had attended in 2010 and 2011 there were also quite a few new faces joining the discussion which was very encouraging.

One of the best parts of the day and a half programme – and a change from the previous events – was to have government from around the world in the room and front and centre in the debates and discussions. We had representatives from line ministries, local government and regulators from Honduras, Guinea, Bangladesh, Albania and Uganda bringing their very important perspectives to bear and also telling positive stories of how government provides leadership, vision and practical frameworks to work towards providing sustained levels of service to rural and peri-urban populations. I was particularly pleased to note how Commissioner Kabrizi’s work from the Rural Water Department of the Ministry of Water and Environment in Uganda was referenced as a shining example of good practice in Africa and one from which we could all learn. As a core partner of the Triple-S Uganda initiative, we know how much the government has done to create the enabling environment for service provision. And although the sector in Uganda still faces many challenges, there is no doubt that there has been a lot of success in establishing the approaches and frameworks that allow for tackling rural water services at scale and in a systemic way – one of the most impressive, also flagged as exemplary in the forum, is the national monitoring system and its eleven ‘golden indicators’.

Taking advantage of the time in Washington after the forum, I visited a number of key sector players along with Nico Terra (IRC Director) and Patrick Moriarty (head of International Programme and Director of the Triple-S project) to formally introduce IRC and to discuss potential plans for opening a US office or representation, which for the most part was met with a lot of enthusiasm. We had some very informative discussions with the (largely) new team at USAID and heard about their new Water Strategy which has been a long-time in the making, but is due to release very soon – I am hoping that some of the key building blocks of sustainable service delivery are enshrined in this document and that we see a move away from a focus on the notion that development aid in our sector can be counted on the basis of numbers of systems built or ‘people reached’.

We also had a very productive meeting with one of the World Bank’s focal points for their thematic group on rural WASH. She outlined some innovative work in Central America with regional governments supported by the Bank in the area of monitoring though a programme known as SIASAR.  The World Bank is a massive organisation and it is hard to get one, comprehensive overview of their actions in WASH. From these discussions it seems that there is still small, but significant funding in the Latin America and Caribbean region, but that rural water remains as a low/non-priority in other regional hubs and seems to have been more or less dropped from the Water Anchor, which is a great shame. Like USAID, the World Bank is also in the process of finalising a new vision document for water, which will set out their position vis-à-vis the sector for the next ten years. We were informed that one of the four pillars of this vision is to address areas of need with an explicitly pro-poor focus. Given that most of the un-served, and some of the poorest people in developing countries live in rural areas, let’s hope that this imbalance in the Bank’s lending portfolio will be addressed as part of that new water strategy.

Returning to my original challenge to sector organisations attending this forum, it is clear that this one event will not result in a complete change of course for any particular development partner. But from some of the conversations I was part of, and from some of the ones that I overheard, it does seem as though we achieved our objective of getting people to reflect and think through the issues and about how their work and investments relate to those of governments in the countries in which they operate. As I said at the outset, for some this is nothing new and is part of their bread and butter operations, but for others I hope it provided some new insights into respective roles and activities. Let’s see what the next twelve months brings and look for further signs of change.

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2 comments on “Reflections from inside the beltway – what did the WASH Sustainability Forum achieve?

  1. Reblogged this on Rural Water Supply Network – Blog and commented:
    Reflection on last week’s Sustainability Forum in Washington DC

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