This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network- we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.
RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.
This is a guest blog by RWSN member Louisa Gosling, based in the UK.
Having worked with International NGOs for 40 years, I am well aware that international development has to be a truly collaborative effort and have always tried to support this. The solutions to water access seem relatively straightforward to people outside the sector. The need for safe drinking water is not controversial, nor is it new. So why is it still such a massive problem for so many people? How can we make progress when the drivers of inequality are so deeply embedded and the political will to address them seem weaker than ever?
I joined WaterAid in 2008 as an advisor on equity and inclusion. I first became involved with RWSN as a Co-Leader of the Leave No One Behind Theme in 2011 and had the great honour of being the chair from 2019-2021.
RWSN is an incredible network of individuals and institutions with a huge range of experience and expertise. This diversity makes possible the co-creation of knowledge and solutions to rural water challenges, combining context specific knowledge with experience of tackling issues of scale. The network can challenge the traditional dominance of northern-generated solutions and increase the representation of knowledge and experience from practitioners working in low-income countries, knowledge that is essential to find solutions that work. A recent consultation with members resulted in a road map to improve the balance of knowledge sharing.
My particular passion has been working with network members to uncover and address the barriers that continue to marginalise rural populations – including social, attitudinal and political drivers of neglect. 8 out of 10 people without access to safe water live in rural areas: an unacceptably tiny improvement since 1992 when it was 90%.
Human rights to water and sanitation have been discussed on the network since 2010. Successive UN Rapporteurs have recognised the unique value of RWSN to generate genuine discussion on how to make human rights have more traction on the ground, especially in areas where issues are worst. The human rights emphasise equality – everyone should have access.
They also emphasise accountability. This topic has been widely discussed in the network. Accountability, or rather the lack of it, impacts every aspect and every level of rural water supply. From global concerns about weak finance and governance, holding governments to account to act on their commitments, to very specific issues of accountability for quality and sustainability, such as those highlighted by the “Stop the rot” research on causes of handpump corrosion.
Gender dynamics in water have also been a focus of the network. The lives of rural women are dominated by their ability to access water and yet it stubbornly remains a patriarchal field. Men still dominate the sector professionally, resulting in a focus on techno-centric solutions with less understanding of the social and power dynamics which are intrinsic to water supply. Men also dominate decision-making in local and national contexts, effectively excluding women from substantive decisions about the provision and maintenance of water supply. This is in spite of growing evidence that women’s involvement increases sustainability. The practical guidelines on gender equality in rural water supply, co-created by RWSN members, should be essential reading for all water professionals.Network discussions have also generated more visibility and understanding of barriers that exclude certain people within rural communities: those with disabilities, older people, and specific population groups marginalised in different contexts. This includes for instance the recent discussions on pastoralists. Spin offs from these discussions have resulted in collaborative collections of practical guidance such as this resource page on disability inclusive WASH: https://www.internationaldisabilityalliance.org/DisabilityInclusiveWASH
The water challenges faced by rural populations are getting tougher and more urgent. There are many examples of solutions, innovations, and good practice, but a huge push is needed to learn from these, get them shared, used, adapted, and to generate the political will and financial resources needed.
RWSN’s unique value is increasingly recognised by research institutions as well as organisations and individuals seeking practical solutions to the problems they face on the ground. The network has become what it is today thanks to the support of some far-sighted donors such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and WaterAid, amongst others. But as some of this support is coming to an end, more resources are needed to maintain this essential driver of collaboration on rural water supply.
Louisa Gosling has worked in International development for 40 years, first joining WaterAid as Equity and inclusion advisor in 2008. This role evolved to focus more broadly on human rights to water and sanitation with a focus on equality, governance and accountability, supporting WaterAid colleagues and others in the sector to develop understanding and practice of these areas. She has worked with the RWSN since 2011 as co-leader of the Leave no-one behind theme and more recently as chair from 2019-2021. Since 2022 she has been working as a freelance consultant currently supporting the work of accountability for water – https://www.accountabilityforwater.org/.
Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication and translation. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at]skat.ch) for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.
1. Meeting in Nampula province Mozambique during an evaluation of a rural water scheme in August 2019. The villagers were not happy as the pump was really not proving enough water for everyone and was always breaking down due to excessive use. Louisa is listening to the villagers explaining their issues. Copyright: Louisa Gosling.
2. Pump mechanic Dalia Soda at one of the boreholes she maintains in the village of Nzeremu, Salima District, Malawi, June 2016.(Copyright: WaterAid / Alexia Webster)