Mapping the big picture: Are WASH achievements linked to higher-level development goals?

Sewerage system construction in Koror. The Koror-Airai Sanitation Project aims to improve sanitation services in Airai and Koror, where about 80% of the country’s population live. Credit: Asian Development Bank

Effective water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs can demonstrably improve sanitation, health, and water access. But, does WASH programming also contribute to additional development goals like education, economic growth, or women’s empowerment? 

To answer this question, with the support of USAID, 3ie developed an innovative new WASH systematic map that explores the value of water security investments for the broader development ecosystem. The map provides an overview of nearly 300 studies that examine the linkages between achievements in drinking water, sanitation provision, and hygiene behaviors and enhanced prosperity, stability, and resilience. The map itself does not provide definitive answers to these questions, but points the user towards studies that address the relationships.

Caption: A subset of the systematic map showing studies that link drinking water improvements to higher-level development outcomes. Size of bubbles indicates the amount of research in that cell and bubbles are color-coded by study type.
Source: 3ie

3ie’s outcome-to-outcome methodology explored prosperity as inclusive of education, livelihoods, women’s empowerment, enterprise, and economic growth; stability, represented by public perceptions of institutions, governance processes or services, and conflict; and finally, resilience through climate-linked food insecurity, climate-linked economic challenges, climate-linked migration, resilience to climate-linked natural disasters, and pollution.

The map identifies three prominent areas of research within the examined literature. First, 39 studies investigated the link between access to drinking water and livelihoods, often measuring incomes or assets. Second, 37 studies investigated the link between access to drinking water and public perceptions of institutions, often in the form of willingness-to-pay studies. Third, 25 studies investigated the link between education and menstrual health and hygiene, particularly the association between improving menstrual health and hygiene  and school absences or enrollment for women and girls.

While the map provides an important resource for understanding linkages between WASH outcomes and livelihoods, public trust in institutions, and education, it also points to significant gaps in WASH research. Carolyn Huang, Senior Evaluation Specialist at 3ie explains: “We observe gaps in the WASH research primarily among resilience outcomes…If the WASH community wants to know more about how WASH improvements affect climate-linked resilience and conflict outcomes, they should conduct studies on these specific questions to fill the gaps in the research base.”

Furthermore, the vast majority of studies that 3ie examined used methods that identify correlation, rather than methods that measure the causation between WASH outcomes and improvements in prosperity, stability, and resilience. Moving forward, investing in causal research to measure whether WASH causes improvements in high-level developmental outcomes is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of improved WASH beyond its impacts on immediate outcomes. We are excited to contribute to the conversation about the links between WASH achievements and big-picture development goals, and we're hoping that future research will help fill in some of the blank spaces on our map.

By Sridevi Prasad, Senior Research Associate, 3ie and Heather van Buskirk, Research Associate, 3ie

About the Author

Sridevi Prasad

Senior Research Associate at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) where she co-produced this systematic map. She has a Master’s in Public Health from Boston University and has previously researched water quality in West and East Africa.


About the Author

Heather van Buskirk

Research Associate at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) where she co-produced this systematic map. Heather holds an MSc in Impact Evaluation for International Development from the University of East Anglia and previously worked as a development practitioner in Southern Africa.


Related Resources

Publication Date
Produced By
Sridevi Prasad and Heather van Buskirk
Related Countries