Research's Role in Extending and Maintaining Sanitation Coverage
October 29, 2010
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center and Senior Fellow, Americas Program
Over the past two weeks I have focused on persistent challenges in reaching the MDG target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to improved sanitation by 2015. Last time I discussed some of the actions the international community is taking to raise awareness about sanitation challenges and solutions, to raise political will in the countries where sanitation efforts are lagging, and to encourage investments in sanitation by a wide range of actors. But while considerable energy is focused on mobilizing state action where sanitation is concerned, the research community also has a significant role to play in extending – and maintaining -- sanitation coverage over the long term.
Having good data about existing coverage and where investments are being made is essential. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program tracks progress in improving access to water and sanitation at the country level, and contains information gathered through household surveys since the mid-1990s. More recently, UN-Water mandated the publication of the Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) to deepen understanding of what works and what doesn’t in terms of policies, donor assistance, and program design, among other issues. Carried out by international organizations, the JMP and GLAAS both provide important information about water, sanitation, and hygiene programs to national level decision-makers and donor agencies, alike.
University researchers also contribute to global sanitation goals by carrying out basic scientific investigation, by conducting training programs and capacity-building exercises, and by sharing their scientific expertise in developing monitoring and evaluation schemes to assess program effectiveness. University-based research has already contributed to understanding what works in terms of program scale-up and how to make sanitation projects sustainable in the long run.
On October 24, during a networking session, at the University of North Carolina Water Institute’s inaugural conference on “Water and Health: Where Science Meets Policy,” the recently formed University/WASH Consortium met to discuss ways to strengthen U.S. universities’ contributions to international policymaking on WASH issues. Beyond encouraging greater communication between scientists and policymakers, the Consortium is focused on promoting international WASH-focused scientific collaborations. Noting that there are already existing partnerships between individual universities in the U.S. and in world regions where sanitation challenges loom large, such as Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the group’s discussion focused on ways to enhance exchanges between U.S.-based researchers and international research partners to share scientific expertise and learn about needs and successful approaches at the community level.
Of course, research – whether carried out by international organizations or university researchers – is only part of the solution. Financing to ensure program implementation and sustainability is also important. And the local private sector has a strong role to play in producing and marketing sanitation interventions that can be maintained over the long term. In the end, governments, international organizations, researchers, investors, entrepreneurs and community members must all contribute to the effort to deliver sanitation services to the more than 2 billion who are still waiting.