Multi-dimensional challenges of ensuring sustainable water supplies

Word from the RWSN Chair:
Louisa Gosling, WaterAid

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Dear RWSN colleagues, the 4 months since the last newsletter have been eventful for the RWSN.

It has become clear that covid-19 will be with us for a long time and that people need water to stay safe. But there is still no sign of the long term investment needed to ensure services are sustainable, while the social, economic and health pressures of the pandemic are making existing inequalities worse. 28 July marked the 10th anniversary of the recognition of water and sanitation as a human right by the UN General assembly.

In his statement to mark the anniversary, the UN special rapporteur concludes: “On the positive side, the international community is well aware that it has the obligation, both moral and legal, to ensure access to safe drinking water and to sanitation for all, without discrimination (…) However, without a swift and considerable increase in the efforts currently dedicated to water and sanitation, and a better understanding of the legal and policy changes required by a human rights-based approach to water and sanitation, the international community will not fulfill the ambitious promises it has made.”

The last RWSN webinar series focused on the human right to water as more practitioners are looking for ways to use human rights commitments to leverage progress.

On the positive side, the pandemic has generated a new urgency for agencies and practitioners to collaborate and work out solutions. RWSN has supported many discussions through webinars and online forums, its members bringing a large range of skills, experience and perspectives to the challenges posed by covid and climate change.

An important milestone was the conclusion of the UPGro research on groundwater in Africa, which has released a huge amount of valuable insights about the potential of groundwater and how to unlock it – especially for the poor. This is the result of a long collaboration between institutions in the global north and global south, with RWSN as knowledge broker. Meanwhile, hugely enriching discussions about decolonising WASH knowledge have erupted on the LNOB group, triggered by Black Lives Matter.

Institutionalised power imbalances between water experts from the south and the north and the different value placed on their expertise were exposed. These dynamics are damaging in themselves and ultimately compromise the viability of solutions developed. I encourage everyone to join this discussion and to challenge the systemic discrimination that limits the potential of collaborative learning.

The role of RWSN has never been more important in jointly tackling the multi-dimensional challenges of ensuring sustainable water supplies for rural populations.

A “C” diagram to identify Covid19 transmission routes

This is a guest blog by RWSN Member Rajan Pandey, WASH and Environment Expert in Nepal.

Colleagues and I have devised a “C” line diagram similar to the “F” diagram the global WASH community uses during ODF campaigns to identify transmission routes for feces.

A group of WASH volunteers here in Nepal prepared this for free use. Anyone around the world can use it or improve/ contextualize it as well to suit their need. Please free free to share feedback with Rajan Pandey as a comment to this blog.

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Five human rights principles that put people centre stage in water, sanitation and hygiene responses to COVID-19

Posted on WaterAid blog on 1 May 2020 in Equality, inclusion and human rights, re-posted on RWSN blog on 4 May 2020.
Authors: Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf. 

WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Empowering and increasing the dignity of marginalised and vulnerable people will help us emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with healthier societies and revitalised opportunities for development and peace. Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf outline how applying the principles of human rights can save lives now and in the future.

The virus does not discriminate, but its impacts – and our responses – do.

– UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

We are all doing our best to minimise the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Overwhelmingly, the response across the world has been to reduce transmission through distancing, handwashing and strengthening public health systems. We know water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are central to the COVID-19 response. So how can human rights help?

A human rights lens reveals unexpected opportunities as we respond to the current crisis and plan for the future. Applying the human rights principles – equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency, accountability and sustainability – deepens WASH responses to COVID-19, helping to both protect everyone now and build more equitable and sustainable societies.

What we do now will shape the post-COVID world and our resilience to future threats, whether climate change or other health crises.

Equality and non-discrimination

The risks COVID-19 presents are not borne equally. We are seeing evidence of this all over the world. Older people, people with health problems, people living in inadequate housing (especially those in dense settlements without access to basic services), homeless people, migrant workers, and those who have to go out to work every day to survive or who are fulfilling a necessary if undervalued role such as care work or street cleaning – all are at higher risk of contracting the virus because they are less able to protect themselves with good hygiene and physical distancing. They are also most severely affected by distancing or lockdown provisions, with eked-out livelihoods vanishing or curtailed.

People who cannot afford to pay their water and sanitation bills risk losing essential services. Independent UN human rights experts have called on governments to prohibit disconnections and to extend continuous access to water for people who don’t already have it. Governments are obliged to ensure access to services. They must intervene so that service providers continue to deliver, and do not face financial challenges in doing so. This is no small feat, given the breadth and diversity of public, private and community water and sanitation services providers, but reinforcing the recognition of these basic services as public services is critical for the realisation of human rights.

Sanitation workers perform vital work and yet are especially exposed to COVID-19. They are often discriminated against, working without protection or dignity. Cleaners, care workers and the many women and children who fetch water for themselves and for others are also at risk of being exposed to the virus.

As with many areas of development, women – despite their central role – are often ignored or marginalised in decisions, so their needs and the specific risks they face are not considered. But many organisations are researching and documenting the widespread gendered implications of the pandemic and response measures. Gender justice should be central in the WASH response, and there is a growing imperative for collaboration with women’s organisations and leaders to find ways to do this.

Human rights to water and sanitation (and other rights) demand that our response to COVID-19 addresses these inequalities. They promote and protect the voices of people who are discriminated against, marginalised and vulnerable, and ensure responses to the virus proactively include them.

Collaboration between WASH actors and organisations representing the rights of marginalised groups – including those focused on disability, age, slum dwellers, prisoners, children or women – brings new understanding and action that ensures inclusive water and sanitation services. Innovative solutions are already emerging from such collaboration, making hygiene messaging and handwashing facilities accessible for people with disabilities, and relevant to diverse populations in challenging settings.WaterAid Papua New Guinea giving loud hailers, inks and papers for printing awareness-raising materials, supporting local health authorities in preparedness for COVID-19.

WaterAid Papua New Guinea

WaterAid Papua New Guinea has provided loud hailers, inks and papers for printing awareness-raising materials, supporting local health authorities in preparedness for COVID-19.

Participation

The AIDS and Ebola epidemics taught the importance of engaging with affected communities. Building trust between government and civil society is critical for suitability, effectiveness and sustainability of responses, to ensure the smooth flow of accurate and helpful information and to avoid indirect or unintended harm.

Physical distancing measures are creating more barriers for many and reducing participation and voice, particularly where participatory processes now rely on the internet. There is a proven gender digital divide, exacerbated by poverty. For example, OECD data indicate that, globally, women are 26% less likely than men are to have a smartphone (70% less likely in South Asia and 34% in Africa).

National coordination mechanisms (such as WASH clusters) should include civil society and organisations representing different sections of the population. This can help governments identify vulnerable people and put in place measures that effectively support those who would otherwise be left behind.

Looking further ahead, making modes of participation and partnership more inclusive could lay foundations for more locally led development beyond the pandemic.

Transparency and access to information

Transparency and access to information are intrinsically linked to participation. If information is not accurate or well-understood by the intended recipients, it has no value. Further, while clear and consistent messaging is important to reinforce behaviour change, it should be tailored to differing contexts. How can people living in informal settlements or remote rural areas respond to ‘wash your hands’ messaging if they don’t have a secure, on-plot supply of water?

To reach the most marginalised people we need to be creative, and to communicate in local languages through a range of channels that are appropriate for the places and people concerned. For example, many countries use radio, such as TanzaniaRwanda and Nepal, where jingles are even broadcast by loud-hailers to communities without FM coverage. Sign language and braille can be used to reach people with hearing or visual impairments.

In Nigeria, local civil society networks and the media are communicating through network members in communities to share information and drive campaigns on improving WASH in healthcare facilities. More ideas can be found in resources such as BBC Media Action’s Guide to community engagement at a distance.

And in South Africa residents in informal settlements are monitoring water and sanitation access during the COVID-19 crisis, sharing the data with city authorities and the media. This initiative has already resulted in improved service delivery and new channels of collaboration with city authorities.A man reads awareness-raising messages through a loud hailer around a community in Bangladesh.WaterAid Bangladesh

A man reads awareness-raising messages through a loud hailer around a community in Bangladesh.

Accountability

Accountability between governments, civil society and development agencies is as critical in a crisis as ever. We are seeing unprecedented funds raised and distributed in response to COVID-19, but how these funds will be used and accounted for is not always clear.

Accountability is essential for minimising corruption and for achieving services that are equitable, sustainable and high quality. This is important both for the emergency procurement and distribution of benefits in the immediate response to COVID-19, and for the long-term sustainability of WASH services.

Unfortunately, accountability mechanisms and relationships in WASH are often weak. Civil society networks must be able to advocate for transparency and accountability in the WASH response to this crisis, to monitor how much of the funding made available for the pandemic is invested with human rights considerations and for the sustainable development of WASH services. There may be more opportunities because the pandemic has raised the profile of WASH, which can create space for WASH actors to contribute to broader accountability initiatives. An example linking WASH to the coalition on peace building and state building in Sierra Leone demonstrates this potential.

Governments are also accountable for the way they are imposing containment measures that limit people’s ability to go out, to work, to fetch water and to use toilets. In many countries we are seeing excessive force used to ensure compliance with lockdown, criminalising people who must leave their home to meet basic needs. This violates human rights and can be detrimental to reducing the spread of the virus if it creates fear and destroys trust between government and communities, as learned from the HIV response. In moments of disaster response the values of open government can come under intense pressure – but can also meaningfully contribute to better outcomes where there is strong cooperation and trust between the authorities and the people.

Sustainability

Poor sustainability and service levels are already a huge barrier to the realisation of people’s rights to water and sanitation, often due to weak systems. These can be strengthened or weakened by the way in which we respond to this pandemic.

Sustainability is a human rights principle – we must not lose progress that has been made. The hope for the post-COVID-19 world – if we use human rights to guide us – is to be in a stronger position than before. This means improved access to water and sanitation for vulnerable and marginalised people; that we more deeply understand how to eliminate inequalities; and that we are more prepared for future health risks and the inevitable impacts of climate change.

How we emerge from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic will have profound and long-lasting impacts on how we all live, work and relate to each other. We are still barely able to imagine the immensity of economic and social change that will emerge.

Human rights put people centre-stage. Empowering and increasing the dignity of people who are currently marginalised and vulnerable will help us emerge from this crisis with healthier societies and revitalised opportunities for development and peace. Human rights principles must guide our responses and will lead us to better, more inclusive, more sustainable results, protecting and saving lives now, and in the future.

Louisa Gosling is WaterAid’s Senior WASH Manager for Accountability and Rights, Naomi Carrard is Research Director at Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney, Hannah Neumeyer is Head of Human Rights at WASH United and Virginia Roaf is Senior Advisor at Sanitation and Water for All.

This blog is the result of collaboration involving WaterAid, Sanitation and Water for All, Institute for Sustainable Futures – University of Technology Sydney, WASH United, End Water Poverty, Kewasnet, Rural Water Supply Network, Water Youth Network, Hope Spring Water, Simavi and Water Integrity Network.

Authors: Louisa Gosling, Naomi Carrard, Hannah Neumeyer and Virginia Roaf. 

Putting equality, inclusion and rights at the centre of a COVID-19 water, sanitation and hygiene response

This is a guest blog by Priya Nath (RWSN Theme Leader) and Louisa Gosling (RWSN Chair). It is reposted from the WaterAid blog with thanks. The original post is available here.

The poorest and least powerful sections of all societies are likely to be worst affected in crises, but we can work to alleviate inequalities through our response. Priya Nath and Louisa Gosling highlight how our emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic can mitigate new and existing vulnerabilities among people affected.

Handwashing with soap is the first line of defence in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet inequalities abound in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), services, and following the advice to wash your hands with soap regularly is not as easy for some as it may sound.

Years of experience and evidence show that income, economic context and landlessness; age, disability and health status; geographical location; and ethnicity, race, religion and gender all play huge roles in determining whether individuals, households and communities have appropriate, available, affordable and accessible WASH. At WaterAid, we have committed to tackling inequalities in all aspects of WASH access.

The way we approach the current extraordinary global health crisis can be no different. Tackling new and existing inequalities must be central to our emergency response to coronavirus. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, life-saving clean water for hygiene, safe sanitation and basic healthcare is more critical than ever. And delivering equitable, empowering WASH responses for all is fundamental.

In our support of COVID-19 responses through WASH we are both drawing on what we already know and learning new ways to reach the most marginalised and the most burdened.

What we already know about tackling inequalities in WASH and emergency contexts

1. Gender inequality is exacerbated in health emergencies and economic crises, so must be tackled in all response efforts

As schools close and families head into lockdown, domestic chores and caring responsibilities increase greatly. At the same time, increased calls for washing hands, as well as for cleaning and sanitising, multiply the need for water. Because of gender divisions of labour, it is women and girls who will have to collect this extra water, perform more labour and do more caring for people who become sick.

For the 29% of people who do not have water inside their home, the additional long journeys to water sources caused by increased demand for water will mean more chances of contact with others at waterpoints or kiosks. And for many it will mean spending more of their already scarce resources on buying water at an unaffordable cost.

Women queue up to collect water from the common water source in Anna Nagar Basti, Hyderabad, India.

WaterAid/ Ronny Sen
Women queue up to collect water from the common water source in Anna Nagar Basti, Hyderabad, India.

Meanwhile, an estimated 70% of the global health and social care workforce are women. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, these frontline workers face increased pressure and exposure to the virus, often with little personal protective equipment. This in the context of two out of every five healthcare facilities globally lacking handwashing facilities, and 55% in least developed countries lacking basic water supplies.

Health crises also increase risks of violence and harassment of frontline health workers, particularly women nurses. Amid the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the World Health Organization documented attacks on more than 300 healthcare facilities in 2019, leaving six workers and patients dead and 70 wounded.

During times of enforced isolation and closure of many public facilities, women and girls’ ability to manage menstruation can be compromised in communities and households. Finding a clean and private space to change and wash while remaining indoors for much of the time with their family, and accessing menstrual materials and water, can be difficult.

Finally, isolation measures, the inability to access previous social support systems and increases in financial and other stresses are increasing the risks of violence against women everywhere (download report PDF). Although not directly connected to WASH, this has implications for women’s ability to access essential services, and must be factored into our response, to ensure people’s safety and security when accessing WASH and other services.

You can read more about the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in this article published in The Lancet.

2. Marginalised people become even more vulnerable during a crisis

People with chronic health issues, such as HIV, or other health conditions are dealing with increased fear of acquiring COVID-19, while often already experiencing social stigma and exclusion based on their health status. In an environment where misconceptions around HIV transmission or general discrimination might already prevent them from using communal WASH facilities, crises have the potential to exacerbate the situation, making handwashing and maintaining treatments even harder. Additionally they face the real risk of disruption to essential life-saving services, and concerns over whether they will be able to access treatment for COVID-19 on an equal basis to others.

More than a billion people globally live with disabilities, the rates higher in low-income countries and among those living in poverty or belonging to ethnic minorities. Once again, the health and social inequalities they already face are intensified in crises. For someone with a physical impairment, accessing clean water frequently can be a challenge because of distance, inaccessible infrastructure or reliance on others.

People with disabilities are often already isolated from the outside world, missing out on public health campaigns geared towards people who move around. And public health and information campaigns are rarely targeted to their specific requirements. Those who rely on a carer to help them with daily tasks face either the risk of added exposure to the virus through their carer, or an inability to get the help they need more than ever in challenging times.

Reuben J. Yankan, Director of the Disable Camp 17th Street Community, who is visually impaired, being helped down the steps from a public toilet by Timothy Kpeh, Executive Director for Peace, Education, Transparency, & Development in Sinkor, Monrovia, Liberia.

WaterAid/ Ahmed Jallanzo
Reuben J. Yankan, Director of the Disable Camp 17th Street Community, who is visually impaired, is helped down the steps from a public toilet by Timothy Kpeh.

 

Equally, public health messaging and calls to stay inside are hard to follow for people who have little or no access to WASH facilities; those who rely on daily wages to survive; those living in densely populated informal settlements or refugee camps; and street dwellers. This puts them at greater risk of not only COVID-19, but also harsh punishment by authorities. For example, we are already seeing a response that includes clearance of informal markets and housing in the name of ‘sanitisation’ in some places. The Ebola crisis in Monrovia in 2014 set a precedent for quarantining entire informal settlements that were deemed a ‘health risk’. This a deep injustice.

Our response efforts can mitigate both existing and new vulnerabilities

While the poorest and least powerful are likely to be worst affected in crisis situations, we can work to alleviate the inequality through our response:

  1. Support governments and other WASH actors to deliver the human right to water and sanitation as a central part of response efforts, provided in a way that is non-discriminatory and accessible to all.
  2. Develop crisis responses alongside the affected communities rather than for them, to ensure solutions meet cultural, social and religious challenges. Disability rights, women’s rights and indigenous rights groups, to name a few, are best placed to help us shape our response in a way that is empowering, does no harm and responds to real requirements.
  3. Tackle and confront any discrimination and stigmatisation in response efforts, related to factors such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, livelihood type and caste. We must closely monitor our messaging, images and approaches to ensure they are not inadvertently fuelling discrimination.
  4. Promote collection of water, cleanliness of water and sanitation facilities and practising of hygiene as the responsibility of all – not just women.
  5. Recognise the obligations and responsibility of government and sector actors to respond; do not make this an issue of individual action or responsibility.
  6. Ensure we are collecting and disaggregating data to understand differing impacts on all parts of the population. At minimum age, disability, gender and location disaggregation is needed.

Read UNICEF’s COVID-19 Considerations for Children and Adults with Disabilities (PDF) guide.

Our simple list of dos and don’ts

As initial responses, including ours, rely heavily on visual and mass media public communications, it is vital that these are respectful and do no harm. Our list of actions to take and avoid can help.

Do: Use images and messaging that show responsibility for hygiene behaviours can be equally distributed.

  • Ensure images are gender balanced.
  • Include males in images of household & community hygiene practices to show collective responsibility.

Don’t

  • Do not reinforce gender or other stereotypes – i.e. do not show only women doing washing, cleaning or looking after children.

Do: Frame messaging that builds community spirit, support and collective action.

  • Use terms like ‘us’, ’we, ‘together as a community’, ‘altogether we can, etc.
  • Use images that show people helping each other.
  • Demonstrate sector/government response and duties, not just individual responsibility.

Don’t

  • Do not focus only on individualistic messages, which reinforce individualistic responses and actions.
  • Do not use emotional triggers such as shame, guilt or fear – we have a responsibility to avoid promoting further hysteria or blame.
  • Avoid emotional or negative language.

Do: Portray people in all their diversity.

  • Communities are made up of women, men, children, people with impairments, people of different ethnic or religious identifies, etc – reflect this reality in your communications to improve uptake.

Don’t

  • Do not blame or associate individual factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, age, impairment, health or poverty status with reasons for infection or contagion.
  • Avoid messaging, images or implementation approaches that unintentionally stigmatise, ostracise or cause abuse for certain people.

Do: Acknowledge and respond to the diverse needs of communities.

  • Demonstrate how assistive devices can be used.
  • Demonstrate solutions that are relevant in low-income settlements, in rural and water scarce areas.
  • The Compendium of accessible WASH technologies has illustrations and descriptions you can adapt.

Don’t

  • Avoid blanket approaches that suggest that everyone can change behaviours without any specific adaptations.
  • Do not direct messaging or responsibility for ‘change of behaviour’ at one group of people, e.g. mothers, instead talk about parents caring for children.
  • Do not misrepresent the number of people who have a clean water supply or access to soap.

Do: Adapt communications to suit different target groups.

  • Consider the communication and learning abilities of all people, including people with visual, hearing and intellectual impairments.
  • Plan channels for information to reach all, especially those doing caring duties, sanitation work, etc.
  • Takeaway materials can reinforce messages and make up for some short-term memory loss among older people or people with disabilities.
  • These should be easy to read, large script, high contrast between text and paper, on non-glare/glossy paper, in local languages/dialects, highly visual​​​​.

Don’t

  • o not exclude anyone. Not being inclusive of all can lead to fear, shame and blame.
  • Do not portray informal settlements or slum areas as ‘vectors of disease’, or poorer areas of the city as being unable to keep clean. This reinforces stigma and increases the chance of a negative reaction. For example, there have already been cases of informal housing being cleared in the name of ‘sanitisation’. The solution lies in guaranteeing adequate and safe levels of service for all, rather than reinforcing stigma towards certain parts of the population.

Do: As part of our do no harm approach, do a risk assessment before and throughout communications campaigns

  • Monitor backlash on social media, such as racist comments and immediately delete as needed.
  • Check that it does not amplify or put blame on one group (or if audience is interpreting it that way).
  • List who is likely to miss out on the communication because of language, ability, culture or gender, and come up with strategies for how they could be included.

Don’t

  • Do not ostracise or promote ‘calling out’ of people or parts of the population. This may encourage vigilante tactics or backlash.
  • Avoid terms such as ‘victim’, ‘infecting’ or ‘spreading to others’.
  • Do not tolerate any racist, bigoted or blaming comments on social media and have a strategy for monitoring these.

Follow us on our journey through the response

As we support community, national and global responses to the coronavirus pandemic, we need to draw on what we already know, keep learning from others and ultimately improve the way in which response work reaches and addresses the needs of the most marginalised, the most burdened and those further away from life-saving clean water for hygiene, safe sanitation and basic healthcare.

At WaterAid, we are putting these principles into action, applying them to our COVID-19 response efforts, details of which you can read in this blog. We look forward to sharing lessons and challenges along the way.

Priya Nath is Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor and Louisa Gosling is Senior WASH Manager – Accountability and Rights, both at WaterAid UK.

Photo credit: WaterAid/ Ronny Sen