UNC Water and Health Week at a Glance

Poster sessions took place virtually at this year’s Water and Health Conference. Photo credit: UNC Water Institute

COVID-19 dictated the format of this year’s University of North Carolina (UNC) Water and Health Conference, which was held from October 26–30, 2020, in a virtual format and free of charge for the first time ever. While the pandemic set the tone for the initial plenary sessions, by no means did it dominate all presentations over the course of the week. Those who worried that a virtual conference would undermine the cross-pollination that typically occurs among academics, policymakers, and development practitioners found much to appreciate about the new format—a more inclusive list of attendees (3,400+ this year), recorded sessions to tune into as your schedule allowed, and a nightly summary geared toward participants in different time zones.

Key takeaways from the opening plenary COVID-19: What We Know and Don’t Know About SARS-CoV-2 and Water, Wastewater, and Hygiene included findings that chlorination effectively protects water supplies from the virus. And while the virus has been found in feces and wastewater, no one has isolated infectious virus from wastewater. Therefore, standard protective measures for those handling wastewater should be sufficient to protect against transmission. 

The next session, COVID-19: State of the Global WASH Response, featured panelists from Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Philippines and several donors discussing how their current water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activities are intended to protect against coronavirus as well as future pandemics. They also addressed the ways they are transitioning from emergency response to medium- and long-term development planning. Among the panelists’ observations: Rapid response can be complicated by the fragmented nature of the sector, so coordination is critical; donor support is needed for cost recovery and continuity of services, especially among small-scale providers supplying last-mile service delivery; and the WASH sector has an important role to play as employers that can help jump-start economic recoveries. Overall, session participants said COVID-19 has heightened the urgency of WASH improvements and warned that current service and investment gaps threaten not only the health of the underserved, but of all of us.

USAID and its partners participated in several side sessions and poster presentations throughout the week, on topics including WASH financing, sanitation, improving hygienic environments for children, rural water supply sustainability, and menstrual hygiene management. 

The session Applying Innovative Financing to Urban Sanitation discussed the large-scale solutions needed to address urban sanitation gaps. Determining how much safe sanitation costs has been a challenge because data are lacking and so many different types of urban sanitation systems exist. However, it is clear that safe sanitation is not affordable to low-income households. The session concluded with a look at the innovative Cambodia Rural Sanitation Development Impact Bond, in which USAID agreed to pay for outcomes achieved—in this case, open defecation-free villages. 

Rural Water Supply Sustainability tackled the topic of professionalizing the rural water sector and moving from a corrective approach to a preventative approach to improve functionality and accelerate repair times. USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership is one activity exploring how area service providers can become self-sustaining. Their recommendations include strengthening local government capacity, establishing a professional management model, advancing policy reform, linking financing to performance, and better coordination with partners. 

USAID’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Partnerships for Learning and Sustainability (WASHPaLS) hosted several sessions. Improving Hygienic Environments for Children highlighted the work of four WASHPaLS grantees to counter disease by preventing children from ingesting poultry feces through geophagy or mouthing behaviors, either through establishing separate play spaces and animal hutches, or improving flooring. One grantee noted that poultry feces control was more behaviorally complex than human feces control. Meanwhile, the second half of Sanitation Market Systems explored the missing link between demand generation and investing in a toilet—demand activation. The skills needed for demand generation and activation differ as it requires some level of persuasion to get a customer to purchase a toilet. Breakout sessions explained how these two approaches differ and complement each other, and explored the role of sanitation programmers and government in the process.

Menstruation & WASH delved into the challenges women and girls of all backgrounds face in managing their periods. While menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in schools remains a critical piece in ensuring WASH equity for all, this side event explored the emerging evidence, lessons learned, and potential solutions surrounding MHM in two unique contexts—humanitarian emergencies and workplace settings. 

Perhaps the most talked about plenary session focused on Addressing Systemic Inequalities in WASH. This wide-ranging and deeply personal discussion explored many of the assumptions the WASH sector makes in its programming. Examples of these problematic assumptions include the decision to only supply basic services to rural areas; well-intentioned interventions that fail to take into account the local context/knowledge; and biases around data collection and analysis of outcomes. To counter some of the negative effects of vanity metrics, English-speaking technocrats, bad aid, and unintended consequences, panelists suggested addressing land tenure, adopting social inclusion, reframing indicators, amplifying failure, and emphasizing local knowledge and community-based interventions.

The weeklong UNC event concluded with a look ahead to 2021 in the Water and Health Wrap-Up, which highlighted major conference themes. The panelists emphasized the urgency and scale of ongoing sanitation challenges, particularly in light of the emphasis on safely managed sanitation in the Global Goals. Panelists also touched upon the importance of looking at the priorities of communities left behind and determining what solutions they can offer; identifying WASH champions in other sectors, such as education and health; and the need to go further faster and use data and information to target those without WASH access. Circling back to the COVID-19 discussion that launched the conference, panelists asked how we can more effectively harness the prominence of WASH, advocate for more resource allocation, and shine the light on the scandal that so many lack WASH in their homes. 

If you registered for the conference, you can follow any of these links to view the recorded sessions, or tune into the full agenda.

By Wendy Putnam of the Water Communications and Knowledge Management Project