Big picture solutions

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/Saskia van Zanen

A popular image of WaterAid’s work is a tap stand or toilet block in a village and the smiling faces of the locals who get to use that service. That’s the end goal we all aspire towards, but it’s an image that’s far more complicated than simply turning up to a village, installing some infrastructure and leaving.

For instance, if a tap stops working after a few months or years, who in the village will fix it? If the village has a mechanic, where are they learning the appropriate skills? And if they need a replacement part, who are they buying it from? If we zoom out from this picture, more questions start to emerge: if a neighbouring community wants access to the same facilities, who is implementing it and where is the funding coming from? Who is deciding which communities get priority, where are they getting their data, and who is collecting the data?

WaterAid’s ‘sector strengthening’ approach is about identifying all of these questions and making sure they all have satisfying answers. It’s about eliminating all the gaps in the process so that a community’s water, toilet and hygiene services are sustainable and will continue providing health benefits for generations to come.

All of our country programs follow this approach, and our work in Timor-Leste is a great example. In the municipalities of Liquiçá and Manufahi, we’ve been working towards achieving ‘Open Defecation Free’ status. To get to this point, whereby everyone in the community has a toilet they can access at home, our activities have involved adapting international toilet guidelines to Timorese contexts, conducting research on the types of toilets locals are most likely to use, introducing affordable toilet-building materials to local supply chains, and influencing governments to make toilets a priority.

Our next step in Timor-Leste is to look beyond households and ensure that locals in Liquiçá and Manufahi have access to quality facilities wherever they go, whether that be schools, healthcare centres or markets.

Similarly, in Papua New Guinea, our Water for Women-funded program has commenced with a baseline data collection survey. This might not sound sexy, but the work is crucial. This year we upskilled a group of 40 local government staff, who made their way through the Wewak district to collect previously unknown statistics on the quality of water, toilets and hygiene in 366 rural communities, 90 schools and 30 healthcare centres.

With this data we can now see which areas of Wewak have the greatest need and can help local decision makers in Wewak decide where they want to prioritise their work. Simultaneously, we are working together with other charities and development organisations working in Papua New Guinea to share our lessons and learn from each other. When you combine this with the relationships we are building at a national level, there is no limit to how many Papua New Guineans we can help reach with quality water, toilet and hygiene services that can last not only for a few years, but a lifetime.

Case study

This article first appeared in WaterAid Australia's Annual Report 2018-19