Leaving no one behind in rural areas is about more than drinking water supplies

Word from the RWSN Chair: Kelly Ann Naylor UNICEF, Co-author: Dr Kerstin Danert, RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development Theme Leader in the latest RWSN Update (June 2019)

The theme of the 2019 World Water Day, the United Nations World Water Development Report the World Water Week in Stockholm and the early 2019 RWSN webinar series was ‘Leaving No One Behind’. What do these words actually mean, and what are the implications for us rural water practitioners, as well as those funding the programmes and projects that we implement?

Leave No One Behind’ is stated in the UN General Assembly Resolution 70/1 entitled: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Leave no one behind calls upon us to find out who has been excluded from service provision, decision-making and development; to find out why; to explore what can be done and to take action to ensure that people who have been marginalised in the past are included now, and in the future.  Secondly, it is about joining hands across disciplines and ‘development themes’ to address gaps.

Let me try to illustrate the first point with a fictitious example: “Country X has witnessed rapid economic growth over the last two decades, leading to substantial improvements in the wealth and living standards of people in three of the country’s five regions. Meanwhile, the lives of the majority of people in the other two, predominantly rural regions have barely changed over fifty years. A sizable proportion of the population there are still living in extreme poverty and have no safety net. The gap in wealth between different parts of the country has widened, and, to make matters worse, the poorest people in the poorest regions have little voice, or influence in decision-making at national level. Leave no one behind calls upon government and partners, as well as funders to understand why these two regions have remained marginalised, to explore what can be done to address the imbalance, and to take action. Addressing spatial (geographical) inequalities as shown in the above example is just one example of taking action to leave no one behind. Depending on the context, inequalities manifest themselves in many dimensions, including, but not limited to gender, ability, age, ethnicity, cast and remoteness. There may also be overlaps. 

The second point, about joining hands and working across development themes is well illustrated in the interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) practitioners may focus on SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation, but drinking water is directly embedded within SDG 1 – No Poverty (basic services), SDG 5 – Gender Equality (time spent on unpaid domestic and care work and women in managerial positions) and SDG 4 – Quality Education (WASH in schools). These are all just as important as SDG 6.

This point was also highlighted in a recent evaluation of the Rural Water Supply programme of UNICEF: if we are to ensure that no one is left behind and fundamentally tackle rural poverty, we, as rural water practitioners need to consider move beyond the confines of drinking water and ‘the WASH world’. To transform people’s lives, water infrastructures need to cater for a wider spectrum of rural needs – domestic supply, household gardens, rural businesses and rural transformation as well as drinking water. We must address gender issues so that women and children no longer ‘do the work of a pipe’ as they spend large parts of their lives hauling water over long distances. We must ensure that people with disabilities are able to meet their water needs and lead dignified lives.

By the end of 2019, UNICEF will publish new guidance on equity in WASH. We hope that this will not only contribute to the efforts that you are already undertaking, but that it can inspire you to do even more to address inequalities. In the meantime, start asking questions about who is being left behind, as well as why and what can be done. Moreover, consider reaching out to colleagues and friends working on rural transformation, gender transformation, nutrition and education to see if there are ways that you can work together to leave no one behind in rural areas.