Rock stars, NASA staff and midwife unions: what innovation looks like at WaterAid

6 min read
Cambodian dancers in the music video
Image: Epic Arts

WaterAid was built on the back of innovation, courage and vision, so it’s no surprise that these values remain integral to who we are today.

When WaterAid started as an organisation in the 1980s, no other water focused non-government organisation existed. As the story goes, a group of engineers from the water sector came together after seeing the water crisis in Africa and South Asia; the outrage they felt inspired them to establish WaterAid.                                                                            

In 2003 our establishment here in Australia was also a partnership between the water industry and the development sector. We arose because of individuals and organisations who had a vision and a fire in their bellies to drive change.

This vision and spirit of innovation is still with us today and can be seen in our approach to tackling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 6, which is dedicated to achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene. To achieve this goal, and all of the goals for that matter, we need leadership and partnerships. We also need innovation.

I’d like to share a few brief examples of innovation that WaterAid and our partners are working on. When you think about innovation, stories involving apps and smart phones typically come to mind. So that’s where I’ll start.

Thanks to the app mWater, we now have community members and local government staff in remote parts of Papua New Guinea that are able to monitor the level of service of water points. We can see online how the water services are tracking over time – putting key data for the first time into the hands of decision makers.

This isn’t an overnight success. I remember meeting the app developers in their living room. They were a couple - one a maternal child health specialist, the other an ex-employee of NASA. In those early days of testing and developing, people dismissed the idea. The team kept testing, trying, failing, and testing some more. Now, six or so years on, it is seen as a huge success and a key part of our solution to monitoring.

To me, this is so exciting because we can see how technology can help us leapfrog towards solutions. Thankfully the team didn’t listen to the naysayers in those early days.

My second story is one that involves no new technology, no new apps and no bright lights. Rather it involves courage. The courage to step up and say we have a problem and acknowledging it can’t be solved alone.

A few years ago we saw surveys that showed that in developing countries, only two thirds of health care facilities at best had safe water. They also lacked basic toilets, while over one third didn’t have handwashing facilities.

We know that one of the leading causes of death in mothers and newborns is sepsis, a life-threatening illness caused by a body’s response to an infection. We also know that this is almost entirely preventable and that providing the basics of water, sanitation and hygiene underpins preventing many of these deaths.

We also now know from studies in Africa that women who give birth where there is no water, sanitation and hygiene face three times the risk of dying.

I am sure that you will agree with me when I say that no woman or baby should die in child birth. No one should die when we know how to prevent it.

We knew that we couldn’t solve this alone; we needed the health sector to lead on this. So we started working with them. This has led to some amazing work around the world. For example, in Cambodia the union on midwives have been campaigning so that all health care facilities in Cambodia have water and sanitation. This means that midwives can deliver the quality of care that every pregnant woman deserves

We have been working with the Department of Health in Cambodia to modify health care facilities so that they not only have access to safe water and sanitation, but that these facilities are accessible to people with chronic illnesses, heavily pregnant women or people with disabilities.

To ensure that every healthcare facility in the world has accessible water and sanitation facilities, we needed the courage to admit there was a problem and the openness to create new partnerships to find solutions.

My third story of innovation again involves new partnerships, the courage to do things differently and having a bit of fun. All for the purpose of saving lives!

One of our most intractable problems is handwashing.  When I strip our work back to its core it’s about stopping the transfer of germs from faeces into people, particularly children. The germs reach people from food that is prepared with dirty hands. Handwashing is one of our best weapons to prevent this, but we have learnt that simply telling people to do something doesn’t change their behaviour!

Our team in Cambodia has created a most extraordinary partnership with a group called Epic Arts to create handwashing messages that target young people. What’s unique about Epic Arts is that all of their artists have disabilities. We initially partnered with Epic Arts to ensure people with disabilities were gaining access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene and to address the stigmas and taboos that often prevent people with disabilities achieving their full potential.

This partnership evolved into us making a video with them. Because our team was so open to exploring possibilities, they came up with the idea to make catchy tunes and videos to inspire behaviour change, specifically handwashing. The music video they created – called “Wash It” – has been watched online more than 750,000 times and has become so popular that last year the performers performed it live at a concert in front of thousands of young Cambodians. The artists now have rock star status in Cambodia!

To me, this is a great example of WaterAid having the openness and courage to do things differently and to step up to a challenge with open minds in order to find a solution, regardless of how unusual that solution may be. It is with this sort of attitude that we will indeed achieve our shared vision. We envision a world where the idea that everyone, everywhere has clean water and decent toilets close to home no longer sounds like a challenge that needs innovation. Instead, it will be an everyday reality.

This article is adapted from a speech presented by Rosie Wheen at the Hunter Water Innovation Gala Night on 17 August 2018.