Published on The Water Blog

Technological innovations are on exponential curves; but are water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) measurement methods stuck in time?

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Co-authors: Evan Thomas and German Sturzenegger

Technological innovations have the potential to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development—if we rise responsibly to the challenge of measuring their impact.

Fifteen years is a long time for technology. In 2003 the “World Wide Web” was pervasive by 1986 standards. Yet today, the web of 2003 may very well have been spun by a single spider.

It’s been over two years since the United Nations introduced the Sustainable Development Goals. How can we better monitor progress toward them? This month, the World Bank Group and the InterAmerican Development Bank, along with collaborators from partnering institutions, published an overview of innovations in the monitoring of water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) impact measures, directly tied to SDG #6: “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” The authors explore the potential of new measurement technologies to “revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development in the sector,” one of the hopes pinned to the SDG framework.

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Credible measurement methods must be both valid and reliable. Ideally, multiple measurements of the same subject would reap the same finding, and conscious and unconscious bias or error would be minimized. But we are not in an ideal world, and there are myriad methods to choose from, each with its own advantages and limitations. Often, it’s a good idea to use more than one to paint a complete picture of both WASH delivery and adoption.

In this book, the authors review a landscape of technologies, methods, and approaches that can support and improve the water and sanitation indicators proposed for SDG target 6.1, “by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all,” and target 6.2, “by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.” The volume reviews the rationale for a continued reliance on household surveys and censuses, analyses water quality monitoring standards applicable to SDG6, assesses methods for measuring water and sanitation use and behavior, describes the emergent technologies, including water meters, water pump sensors, and latrine motion detectors, and evaluates the relevant technologies and services that offer improvements in the collection of, and action on, data from water and sanitation programs.

For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa, about one million hand pumps supply water to over 200 million rural water users across the continent, yet as many as one-third of all hand pumps are thought not to be working at any given time , with 30–70 percent broken within two years. In Ethiopia and Kenya, sensors connected to the satellite network are being installed on remote electrically powered boreholes to monitor functionality and water service delivery. These measures are entered into decision aids that may dispatch technicians, supplies, or other response. Also, mobile-enabled “smart hand pumps” reduced the pump downtime from an average of 27 days to 2.6 days.

In some cases, technologies and methods are readily available, thanks to long-term effort. Household surveys are in this category, although there is innovation here too, as a reliance on grueling and sometimes problematic paper-based processes shifts toward electronic, cloud-based, and georeferenced means of collecting, systematizing, and reporting big data. Other promising technologies are yet to be rolled out (e.g., drone surveys to identify latrines on roofs, remotely reporting sensors for tracking public facilities’ usage), but may be integrated over time as disruptive technologies evolve alongside the so called 4th Industrial Revolution. Some means of measurement are direct, some remain indirect. Some are objective, while others involve rigorous training to help users avoid subjective influence. Some are cheap. Others remain expensive. Some involve obstacles to scalability, while others are just waiting to be scaled up (the use of satellite imagery, for example). The exciting thing is the very fact that we can’t set in stone what is the “best” type, because we can expect more options to open up in an exponential curve between now and 2030.

Effective monitoring is needed to ensure interventions are having the impact they were designed for, and to generate evidence for adjusting them in a timely manner. Our hope is that, by making this information publicly available, we will encourage you and other WASH practitioners to begin using these technologies when monitoring SDG 6, so this ambitious goal is more likely to be achieved.

Going back to our opening theme: monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from 2000-15 was like an early iteration of the “World Wide Web”—global, comprehensive, but unidimensional, based on household surveys.  Innovative technologies are not expected to replace this process, but rather to complement it—and to take contextualization, triangulation, and accuracy to new heights and depths. Although some such technologies are ready to be rolled out soon, it is entirely possible that some will be invented closer to 2030... possibly by you.


Luis Andres

Lead Economist, Water Global Practice, World Bank

Libbet Loughnan

Water, Sanitation, Hygiene Statistics and Communications Specialist

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