38th WEDC International Conference

Water, sanitation and hygiene services beyond 2015: Improving access and sustainability.


13 Aug 2015 | AU

WEDC, one of the world’s leading education and research institutes for developing knowledge and capacity in water and sanitation for low and middle-income countries, hosted their 38th conference at Loughborough University in late July 2015. The conference brought together 347 water, sanitation and hygiene academics, practitioners and advocates from 42 countries. As Robert Chambers, a self-confessed conference connoisseur put it “WEDC is his favourite conference”. 

WaterAid Australia’s Program Effectiveness Manager David Shaw attended the 38th WEDC International Conference and here he shares his reflections on the main three cross cutting themes from the conference.

Financing for development

Whilst the big guns debated billions or trillions at the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa a couple of weeks earlier, several papers brought to light challenges of effective finance at the programmatic level. As we know, through the community management approach, committees are established that hold responsibility for managing and maintaining WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) services over time; including the collection and management of user fees to pay for future repair costs.

Presentations by Kate Neely (paper 2105) and Ellie Chowns (paper 2147) respectively highlighted findings from research in Timor-Leste and Malawi. In Timor-Leste, a standard fee of $0.25 per household per month is payable by all households. The fee is not calculated based on an analysis of lifecycle costs, but is a standard amount applied by actors across the sector. And is not dependant on the level of service provided or respective household wealth. In Malawi, sampled communities had collected less than 1% of expected fees as part of a similar community management approach.

Foisting managerial responsibility onto voluntary community groups has alleviated the financial, capacity and technical burden of supporting maintenance and repair work from national and sub-national governments. A paper by Paul Hutchings (paper 2194) raised the question of whether we have reached the limit to what can be achieved through volunteerism. In India, the local government is taking on more responsibility for capital maintenance expenditure but, even within this approach, community financing plays a significant role; those communities who can pay more have higher levels of service than communities who can’t. Chris Brewer (paper 2206) presented work in Rwanda, where private operators have agreements with local governments to manage water schemes. A key determinant of service performance was whether district administrators provided financial support for more expensive repairs. Providing co-financing was not universal, with some local governments supporting repairs costing $200, whilst others provided no funding irrespective of cost.

The challenge posed by operation and maintenance is not new. At the third WEDC conference in 1976, Liz Burns et al (http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/resources/conference/03/burns.pdf) presented research in Lesotho and found that “in general, water supplies are not well-maintained and there are many cases of water supplies which remain inoperable for months or even years for want of a simple repair.” This continues to be a challenge plaguing the sector today. We may only overcome this through developing more locally appropriate approaches for managing services and mechanisms to fund essential maintenance and repair work.

The importance of context

Understanding context is critical to providing effective assistance and designing appropriate programs. Recommendations from Chris Brewer’s (paper 2206) work in Rwanda included developing knowledge of the local government’s policy on financing repairs and relationships with private operators to ensure informed and effective support. An analysis of supply chains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Stephen Jones (paper 2217) identified that procurement practices of international NGOs bypassed local supply chains, depriving nascent businesses of trade. Through importing products directly, NGOs were exempt from tax that the local private sector would be liable to pay. Whilst delivering value for money for the NGO, the practice actively discouraged development of local capacity for procuring and supplying products and spare parts. 

Sector experts place a high value on water quality, however research in Burkina Faso presented by Julia Boulenouar (paper 2202) found communities valued convenience over quality. The distance between a household and a water point was found to be a significant factor influencing choice. Accessing water from sources closer to home and with less waiting time was more important in that context than using an ‘improved’ water source. 

As the community led total sanitation (CLTS) approach to mobilising communities to eliminate open defecation spread from Bangladesh to elsewhere in the world, locally appropriate motivations and triggers were identified and employed to enhance the effectiveness of promoting behavioural change. CLTS changed the sanitation landscape and a series of ‘frontier’ papers discussed as part of an evening session set out the latest developments and evidence of ongoing adaptations. Presenting initial findings from a sustainability assessment of WaterAid’s work in Bangladesh, Andres Hueso suggested the challenge of achieving open defecation free communities had actually increased over time. Sustaining change and improving quality were recognised by Robert Chambers has big challenges for the sector and suggested that introducing sanitation marketing into the CLTS process during triggering may enable demand for locally appropriate, adequate toilets to be met. However, this was cautioned with the need to be savvy about when latrine designs should be introduced – people want the most expensive, which may delay building an adequate toilet.  

Presenting work that brought CLTS together with supporting marginalised groups, Jane Wilbur stated we should aim for all sanitation facilities to be disability-friendly, but that each household needs to make an informed choice about their preferred option. Appropriate adaptions are not rocket science and do not have to be an expensive add-on. Universal access can’t be achieved without supporting vulnerable groups or sustaining changed behaviour.

Working with enterprises

NGOs have a reputation for giving stuff away for free. In discussing work with small-scale pit latrine emptiers in Tanzania, Steve Sugden found that when trying to shift to a more business-oriented approach, that persistent perception was very hard to overcome.

After reviewing different types of enterprises and business models, J. Willets (paper 2266) found the propensity to take risks varied greatly between NGOs (small) and businesses (much higher). George Michel argued that community based organisations (CBOs) don’t become entrepreneurs; his experience suggested it’s less challenging (but still hard) to work with existing entrepreneurs and channel their motivation to make money into sanitation. We were told to not expect change to happen quickly; to expect failure; and to think and work differently.

As one delegate remarked, urban sanitation often has very little to do with sanitation.  Steve Sugden, who has worked with pit emptiers for many years, argued that the technology for pit emptying addresses only 20% of the challenge; the other 80% is all the other stuff regarding what it takes to have a successful business, from financing to marketing. Pit emptying is not something people aspire to become part of – they stay in the business generally until something better comes along. To keep people motivated, enterprises need a long-term plan for growth, with appropriate business development support (peer to peer learning) along the way.


The conference closed with a moving tribute to Bob Reed, a lecturer who retired earlier this year after working with WEDC for around 30 years. In a message to those getting into the sector, Bob highlighted the personal and profound impact improving access to WASH services can have on someone’s life. This echoed sentiments from Peter Harvey earlier in the day, who wished he could leave decision makers by a baobab tree… so they could understand the fundamental importance of having clean drinking water and a safe toilet. 

Copies of papers presented at this conference (as well as all previous conferences) are available on the WEDC website at: http://www.wedcconference.co.uk/previous.html