Urban WASH resilience – What we’ve been up to this week

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An improved latrine, but is it resilient to flooding?

The members of the UK Water Network had an meeting with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently about coordination and policy messaging on urban sanitation. Very interesting, and maybe one for another time. In this blog, I thought I’d share some follow-up reflections from side conversations I had with some of the UK Water Network members on that day. We discussed the issue of disease outbreaks that emerge in urban areas, including refugee camps, during humanitarian emergencies as a result of water, sanitation and waste systems not surviving the stress they are put under.

The people around the coffee table where mostly from humanitarian organisations, organisations that focus on emergency response. That’s why the conversation was framed in terms of emergency response – how can agencies respond quickly and effectively in an emergency situations to ensure that people are still able to access clean water, toilets and hygiene products and that waste, including faecal waste (“WASH” for short), is managed safely, so to reduce the risk of disease outbreak?

The conversation was just as interesting for me, working at Practical Action, which is a development organisation rather than a humanitarian organisation, as it could be flipped on its head, and create the question: What can we do to promote urban WASH systems that are resilient to stress, and avoid health emergencies, such as a cholera outbreak?

This question brings together two of Practical Action’s priority themes: Urban WASH, and disaster risk reduction. It’s a nexus issue, the buzz word of the moment it seems. But what is not quite so obvious is that it is also squarely relevant to another strength in our work at Practical Action – market systems. Here’s how.

(The following is an extract from a draft concept note and capability statement that the Urban WASH team at Practical Action is using to create further discussion and partnership with other like-minded organisations on this issue. So it’s a draft, it’s not exhaustive by any means, and it’s intended to stimulate conversation. Get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss further, and hear more about our experience in this area).

 

Water access, sanitation and hygiene, and waste management (WASH) are effective and cost efficient health interventions. they contribute to reducing the incidence water and vector borne disease caused by contaminated water. In urban areas especially, special attention needs to be paid to faecal sludge management (FSM). That’s because, where space is limited, planned FSM is essential to achieve safe disposal of the most harmful waste away from water sources. Furthermore, in urban area its important that FSM is sustainable, and achieves total coverage of the urban environment if the health goals are to be attained, and maintained, over time.

Market system approaches focus on the access and service chains of water, sanitation and waste management, their enabling environment, and the supporting functions on which they depend, and take into account the economics of scaled and sustainable delivery (driven by public subsidy, service user payment and value recovery), and thus provide promising lens to analyse, design, and establish urban WASH systems fit for environmental health purposes. Such approaches should be:

  • Systemic, in the sense that they seek to address the underlying causes of limitations in scaled and sustainable urban WASH and safe disposal coverage;
  • Facilitative, in the sense that the role of the development agency is a temporary, enabling one, avoiding un-sustainably subsidising recurrent costs of functions in the delivery system;
  • Participatory, in the sense that they seek to build on the capacity, processes and interests that exist among actors involved.

Urban WASH systems designed to ensure safe disposal of waste away from water sources are at great risk of natural hazards, especially those related to flooding, All the lengthy and costly efforts to improve health status by reducing or eliminate instances of water and vector borne disease can be undermined within hours by flooding, causing and exacerbating humanitarian emergencies. Resilience in urban WASH systems – robustness (resistance to shock), rapidity (response rate) redundancy (degree of slack in the system), resourcefulness (innovation in response) – is thus also a critical factor to consider as part of a long-term WASH-based health intervention.

Taking the example of flood risk, analysis involves answering the following questions and planning for flood scenarios:

  • Where is the flood likely to take place, geo-spatially?
  • What functions of water access and waste (especially faecal sludge) management are likely to be affected?
  • Where are current disposal flows most likely to be disrupted and cause contamination?
  • Which of these points are most likely to affect residents, especially most vulnerable groups?

Flood risk analysis should also be informed by the projected local impacts of climate change.

Building flood resilience in Urban WASH systems therefore involves:

Understanding Urban WASH systems and its core and supporting functions and enabling environment, where a market system lens is promising to take into account the economics of scalable and sustainable delivery;

Focusing on risk points in these systems where the flood’s likely geo-spatial coverage will affect WASH functions leading to disruption of safe disposal, contamination in areas used by residents, especially at vulnerable groups;

Making decisions about resilience building activities to build on the following dimensions of resilience at these risk points – robustness, rapidity, redundancy, and resourcefulness.

A final connection worth making, turning this issue back round to emergency response is the the Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) toolkit, where market systems are also at the centre of efforts to provide effect emergency response.

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