December 14, 2014 Society

Ending the Lack of Access to Safe Water and Sanitation Can Act as a Catalyst for Greater Innovation to Deliver Human Well-Being and a Sustaniable Future

Today, water and sanitation professionals the world over eagerly await two momentous events. The first is a summit of political leaders that will be held in September 2015 to adopt the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda. To prepare for this summit and its outcome, an intergovernmental process will be launched in September 2014, at the beginning of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly.

At the very same time the water professional community will also meet, as it does every two years, at the IWA’s World Water Congress in Lisbon from the 21 – 26 September 2014, to try to find solutions to deliver more efficient and effective management of water resources and water services using innovative technology, best practice, knowledge sharing and collaboration within the water sector and beyond.

As a young water professional from South Africa I find myself cautiously optimistic about what both processes can achieve. But one thing I am excited and expectant about is what the global community can deliver in terms of innovative solutions. Growing up in the water sector, the World Water Congress has been my candy store – a place where I could gobble up the latest technologies the world had to offer. This year however, I will be sure to ask all water professionals displaying their wears, what they have done to apply their innovations and ensure uptake. Water and sanitation services remain one of the core challenges of our time globally, and particularly for South Africa’s growing political economy. And despite several major achievements in water services provision, our recently appointed Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, made a bold statement by saying that the target of eradicating the bucket system by December 2014 will not be met. “[O]n behalf of the President, I must apologise to the people of South Africa in that we were overambitious in targeting the completion of the bucket eradication backlog by December 2014, a target that we will not meet. However, with the budgets that we have secured and the plans we have in place, we will meet the target during the 2015/16 financial year.”

Members of the South African water and sanitation sector applaud her for her open and transparent approach. According to the 2012 National Report on the Status of Sanitation Services roughly 1.4 million formal households still required sanitation services and around 0.5 million households in informal settlements were making use of interim services. This situation is not due to a lack of trying or willpower. Eradicating the sanitation backlog is one of the most challenging aspects for most, if not all, developing countries across the globe. One of the difficulties associated with sanitation provision is linked to the availability and appropriateness of technologies to meet changing demography, user preferences, budgetary constraints and water resource requirements. Traditionally, we would implement conventional flush toilets connected to the waterborne sewerage network. However, new challenges associated with water availability, climate change, pollution and the rising costs associated with conventional technology are making us rethink and evaluate sanitation delivery, and more specifically the need for different solutions. New technologies bring about another set of issues regarding user acceptance and institutional management of waste streams post-toilet implementation.

In response, several new sanitation technologies and innovations are beginning to enter the South African market from all over the world. Toilets come a dime a dozen in all shapes and sizes with just as many “Made in …” stamps. Some of these are newly developed, others improvements in order to meet the various requirements for sanitation access across a wide variety of settings (from the urban to the rural). However, in South Africa there has been no mechanism to document or adequately establish the appropriateness of these innovation responses. Consequently, the innovations that are available or have been developed are often not well understood or appraised. In some cases, the lack of information has led to the wrong choice of sanitation technology being implemented, the proposed technology not meeting its intended purpose and / or uncertainties of the functioning, institutional and operational and maintenance requirements of the new technologies have led to toilets being operated in an unsustainable manner. This has often led to serious disrepair beyond normal operational and maintenance requirements several months or years after implementation. For this reason, emerging technologies are often met with scepticism and therefore fail to achieve wider uptake and application. The responsibility now rests on the water and sanitation sector globally to provide demonstrated innovations that can have real impact on the ground. For this to be achieved, summits like the World Water Congress become all the more important, not only to taste the candy, but to push the boundaries a little further and critically interrogate them for what they contribute to implementable solutions.

Indeed, ending the lack of access to safe water and sanitation is critical to addressing water equity globally, and can act as a catalyst for greater innovation to deliver human well-being and a sustainable future. Only when we have enabled this expansion of the frontiers of human dignity can we begin to talk about growth and prosperity in earnest.

Inga Jacobs

Water Reaserch Commision, South Africa