Water Currents: Sustainable WASH Systems

Despite investing billions of dollars in rural water and sanitation over the past 30 years, sustainable services for water, sanitation, and health (WASH) remain elusive. The failure to achieve sustained services is not an infrastructure failure, but a systems failure. Local systems—the network of people and intangible, interacting factors that support and deliver a service—are the drivers of service delivery. Service levels can improve through understanding and strengthening both local and national systems.

This issue of Water Currents focuses on the work of the many local governments, communities, and sector partners, as well as investments by USAID in programs like the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) that are exploring new approaches to strengthening local systems to achieve greater service sustainability.

In addition to SWS, we would also like to thank Agenda for ChangeMillennium Water Alliance, and the Institute for Sustainable Futures for contributing to this issue.

In Focus title

Learning Documents
Strengthening Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Systems: Concepts, Examples, and ExperiencesAgenda for Change, February 2020. This paper describes the concepts, frameworks, and tools that Agenda for Change members use for analyzing systems; provides practical examples of systems strengthening efforts; and outlines the journeys that members have gone through in progressively embracing systems strengthening approaches.

System Approaches to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: A Systematic Literature ReviewInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, January 2020. Based on this review, the authors propose four recommendations for improving the evidence base on evaluating interconnections among factors within WASH systems.

Sustaining Rural Water: A Comparative Study of Maintenance Models for Community-Managed SchemesSWS, July 2019. This study considers different variations of maintenance approaches. It provides a typology for characterizing maintenance service provision models, a framework for analyzing them, and an in-depth study of seven maintenance models that represent different cases from the typology of approaches.

Application of the District-Wide Approach in 5 Pilot Districts of Rwanda: Lessons LearnedAgenda for Change, February 2020. The district-wide approach is a relevant and effective approach for articulating WASH plans and to get buy-in from various stakeholders for attaining universal access and the stakeholders’ roles therein. As both a process and an output to investment planning, the district-wide approach has been effective.

Understanding Rural Water Services as a Complex System: An Assessment of Key Factors as Potential Leverage Points for Improved Service SustainabilitySustainability, February 2020. Researchers conducted four participatory factor mapping workshops with local stakeholders across multiple rural water contexts to identify the factors and interactions that support service sustainability.

How to Use Learning Alliances to Achieve Systems Change at ScaleIRC, 2019. IRC describes the thinking behind its use of learning alliances in this working paper, offering practical guidance on how to adopt the approach and build a change hub to support it. It cites examples from Ghana and Uganda.

Strengthening Sanitation and Hygiene in the WASH Systems Conceptual FrameworkSustainable Services Initiative (SSI), August 2019. This discussion paper reflects SSI’s thinking on WASH systems, particularly on questions such as: what are key differences among water supply, sanitation, and hygiene that may affect systems strengthening approaches, and are conceptual frameworks and concepts for WASH systems fully applicable to all three WASH subsectors?

Doing WASH Well: A Set of Principles for Implementing Agencies and their EvaluatorsWaterlines, July 2019. The authors of this editorial propose a set of principles that could guide WASH actors and form an evaluation benchmark for WASH systems.

Beyond Building Blocks? Identifying and Monitoring Dynamic Drivers of Sector PerformanceWaterAid, March 2019. One recommendation in the report is that WASH donors and implementing partners should continue to deploy building block frameworks, but with greater emphasis on using and improving them for the purposes of recurrent monitoring. 

Collective Action Towards WASH Systems StrengtheningWASHfunders, November 2019. This article describes how Agenda for Change members and other organizations collaborate on WASH systems issues.

Understanding the WASH System and Its Building Blocks: Building Strong WASH Systems for the SDGsIRC, 2018. This paper presents a set of nine building blocks of WASH systems intended to reduce complexity to a manageable level, enabling and supporting action, while neither oversimplifying reality nor losing sight of the broader WASH system.

Groundwater as a Source of Drinking Water in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: A Multi-Country Review of Current Reliance and Resource ConcernsWater, August 2019. The authors reviewed current and emerging groundwater resource concerns using a systems thinking approach to assess how groundwater resource issues influence household water services.

Evaluating Systems Change Efforts: Where to StartCollective Impact Forum, February 2020. Panelists in this webinar discuss how evaluating system change is different from evaluating programs. They explain some of the core evaluation principles needed when advancing systems change work.

Embracing Complexity: Towards a Shared Understanding of Funding Systems ChangeMcKinsey & Company, January 2020. How can systems change across the world be financed more effectively? How can change be better supported for the benefit of society? This report provides donors and investors, as well as charitable initiatives and organizations, with answers to these questions.

Country Reports – Sanitation
Exploring a Network’s Value: Lessons from EthiopiaSWS, February 2020. In Ethiopia, LINC is supporting activities to strengthen learning networks for sanitation in two small towns. For the long-term sustainability of a network, it is critical to understand how members value the network, i.e., what they hope to gain and what they want to contribute.

Systems Reboot: Sanitation Sector Change in Maputo and LusakaWater and Sanitation Urban Partnership, November 2019. Using systems thinking principles, this report explores the development of on-site sanitation in two capital cities over the last 10 years and provides insights into how the WASH system can deliver better results for urban residents in both cities.

Planning Differently: Developing Long-Term, Strategic Plans for District-Wide Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services in EthiopiaMillennium Water Alliance, May 2019. Long-term (e.g., 2018–2030) strategic planning at the district level is a necessary first step to identifying sources of increased financing based on projected requirements.

Country Reports – Water Supply 
A Local Systems Analysis for Rural Water Services Delivery in South Ari and Mile, EthiopiaSWS, September 2019. This report summarizes the strengths of the decentralized local systems that deliver services, describing key actors and factors and the interactions between them. The report makes recommendations for activities to strengthen the systems that improve service delivery.

Capacity Development in the WASH Sector of EthiopiaMillennium Water Alliance, November 2019. When considering how to improve capacity in Ethiopia’s WASH sector, several factors must be taken into account. One such factor is that capacity development should include operations and maintenance for already-existing water points to increase sustainability.

Service Delivery Models for Universal, Safe and Sustainable Water Services in EthiopiaMillennium Water Alliance, June 2019. This paper presents and discusses characteristics of the main rural service delivery models in Ethiopia. It includes discussion on levels of service, types of infrastructure, and management models, including support arrangements.

Creating a Roadmap for Sustainable Water Service Delivery in HaitiUSAID Global Waters, February 2020. Through in-depth assessments of each of its five targeted urban areas—Canaan, Cap Haïtien, Jérémie, Les Cayes, and Mirebalais—the USAID Haiti Water and Sanitation Project identified unique circumstances that constrain water service delivery as well as many shared challenges.

Cliff Nyaga and Pauline Kiamba on Sustainable Rural Water Improvements in KenyaGlobal Waters Radio, September 2019. This podcast features best practices and lessons learned from SWS efforts to create and sustain rural water supply improvements in Kitui County.

Emerging Lessons on Sustaining Rural Water Services in Uganda: A Case Study of Whave's Preventive Maintenance ModelSWS, December 2019. This case study focuses on results in three districts where SWS partner Whave has operated for more than four years, achieving high rates of hand pump functionality with a short duration for breakdowns (less than three days of downtime on average).

Strengthening WASH Systems: Tools for PractitionersSustainable Services Initiative, April 2020. The toolbox provides information on systems strengthening in a summary format, developed for country or field based practitioners. It is written primarily from the perspective of an NGO wishing to engage in systems strengthening at the local level.

WASH Systems Glossary of TermsAgenda for Change, 2019. Included terms and definitions cover aspects of WASH systems strengthening and collaboration used by Agenda for Change members and other systems leaders.

All Systems Go! IRC WASH Systems Symposium. The symposium, held March 12–14, 2019, brought together systems thinkers and doers from the WASH sector to discuss how systems approaches can help build sustainable and expanded WASH services around the world. Resources include presentations, a concept note, and videos.

Strong Systems: Making Water and Sanitation for Everyone, Everywhere and Forever a RealityIRC, March 2019. In his keynote speech at the 2019 All Systems Go! WASH systems symposium, IRC’s Patrick Moriarty discusses how to build sustainable WASH systems and lasting services.

WASH Systems AcademyIRC, 2019. IRC has launched a series of free online courses aimed at assisting WASH sector professionals in applying systems strengthening approaches in their work. It includes multiple self-paced courses.

Sector Strengthening Programme Design ToolkitWaterAid, June 2018. As part of its global strategy aimed at sustainability, WaterAid is designing WASH programs using a set of participatory tools that help identify barriers in the system and devising activities to overcome these barriers.

Technology Applicability FrameworkRural Water Supply Network, n.d. The Technology Applicability Framework is a decision-support tool on the applicability, scalability, and sustainability of specific WASH technologies to provide lasting services in a specific context.

USAID Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership – SWS tests new ideas, approaches, and tools to overcome barriers for improving WASH service sustainability.

Agenda for Change – Agenda for Change works to deliver positive change toward WASH service delivery through a systems-wide approach that tackles policy, financing, and institutions.

Millennium Water Alliance (MWA) – MWA has created consortium field programs in which member NGOs bring their strengths and share ideas on effective approaches for maximum efficiency and long-term effectiveness in WASH programs. Read reports on WASH Systems in Ethiopia from MWA.

IRC – IRC is an independent, nonprofit organization that drives resilient WASH systems from the ground up. The site includes a collection of WASH systems resources.


Water Currents
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USAID Water Team
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