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Joining forces to secure water supply and sanitation services in protracted crises

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People living in densely populated cities are supported by an intricate mesh of water, sanitation, health and electricity systems. When these systems are attacked and neglected for prolonged periods of time, when large numbers of people take refuge in cities – as they have done across water scarce Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – systems become vulnerable to collapse. Does it matter what condition systems were in before the crisis? As actors respond to urgent needs is it possible to reverse system decline before the next crisis comes? How should humanitarian and development actors be working together to address both the urgent needs and rebuilding system resilience?  

The search for ways to improve our collective response has led the World Bank, UNICEF and the ICRC to publish a new report today called, “Joining Forces to Combat Protracted Crises: Humanitarian and Development Support for Water and Sanitation Providers in the Middle East and North Africa.” It is based on case studies from the field, as well as inputs from the Arab Countries Water Utilities Association (ACWUA) and multiple water and sanitation service providers.  

This report highlights five pernicious problems that are typically experienced by water supply and sanitation (WSS) service providers operating in protracted crises: (1) inadequately governed water resource management; (2) aggressive competition from alternative providers (e.g., tanker trucks) undermining network services run by WSS service providers; (3) the paralysis of high-tech wastewater treatment plants; (4) escalating energy costs of off-grid generation; and (5) the cashflow crunch that occurs as service provider costs jump and revenues fall.  

These problems, the report argues, emerge from a “new” humanitarian crisis layered on top of “old” development challenges. This layering of humanitarian crisis on top of development challenges transcends traditional notions of a phased “handover” from humanitarian to development actors. Saving lives must be done while stabilizing WSS service delivery — albeit under some of the most challenging circumstances in the world.  Only by addressing both the current humanitarian crisis and pre-existing development challenges can we stem the decline in service delivery and build resilience to future hazards. 

Recognizing that protracted urban warfare is increasingly a prominent characteristic of armed conflicts, combined with rapid urbanization, the humanitarian sector has been pushed to its limits in being able to respond in terms of scale, complexity and duration. Once a country is in protracted crisis, opportunities for building resilience in WSS service provision become highly constrained by factors well beyond the control of service providers  - owing to increased insecurity, political tension and macro-fiscal constraints. 

The urgency to act is especially evident today, as access to safe water and sanitation plays a crucial role as a barrier to the spread of COVID-19. Building on a shared understanding of how many challenges have their roots in pre-crisis vulnerabilities, and how they emerge to accelerate the rate of decline in WSS service provision during crisis, there are four proactive ways to strengthen humanitarian-development partnerships to anticipate and respond to protracted crises without compromising the humanitarian mission: 

  1. Humanitarian and development actors should work together with WSS service providers to make emergency preparedness plans for acute crises as a ‘no-regrets’ investment.  

  1. Pre-crisis partnerships would enable humanitarian actors to establish links with WSS service providers and their supporting ministries.  

  1. In a protracted crisis, it should be a standard requirement for humanitarian and development actors to coordinate and align their interventions to support the resilience building of WSS service providers.   

  1. Both pre-crisis and during a protracted crisis, humanitarian and development actors should work in a complementary and coordinated manner with WSS service providers to unmask underlying vulnerabilities.  

Strengthening humanitarian-development partnerships to support WSS service providers in these ways could allow these actions to become a set of global safeguards to better protect water supply and sanitation services from crises, in addition to upholding international humanitarian law and protecting WSS infrastructure and personnel from the direct and indirect effects of attacks. The findings and recommendations hold relevance well beyond the WASH sector and the MENA region, providing general guidance for operationalizing the humanitarian-development nexus, and helping to limit the negative repercussions that would undoubtedly occur with further inaction and complacency. 

Download the Full Report: Joining Forces to Combat Protracted Crises: Humanitarian and Development Support for Water and Sanitation Providers in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report was funded in part by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership.


Jennifer J. Sara

Global Director, Climate Change Group, World Bank

Dominik Stillhart

Director of Operations, International Committee of the Red Cross

Ted Chaiban

MENA Regional Director for UNICEF

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