Published on The Water Blog

Thinking and working differently to improve water security and safely managed sanitation in Africa

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How can we think and work differently to improve the outcomes of investments in water supply, sanitation, and hygiene – and particularly for people living in poverty?
This was the big question we shared with governments, regional institutions, international partners, the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, and the media at the recent 7th Africa Water Week in Libreville, Gabon. AWW is convened by the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) in conjunction with the African Union Commission and organized with other development partners. The event brings together stakeholders to collectively debate and seek solutions to Africa’s most challenging water and sanitation issues.

At Africa Water Week, I had the opportunity to present the World Bank’s Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Poverty Diagnostic Initiative (WASH PD) at the Country Focus Day during the High Level Ministerial Dialogue on “Linkage between WASH and Poverty”. This initiative is just one example of how the World Bank and our clients are thinking and working differently based on evidence gathered from across the world. Funded by the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), the initiative spans 18 countries ranging from fragile and conflict-affected states to middle-income countries, and set out to answer some key questions: 
  • Who are the people living in poverty and where do they live?
  • What is their level of access to water supply and sanitation? 
  • What is the impact of inadequate water supply and sanitation on child health and childhood stunting?
  • Why do water and sanitation services often fail the poor? 
There were three key lessons from the research, which we discussed at AWW, that seemed to really resonate with those in attendance:
First, better coordination is needed for investments in human capital across the water, health, and nutrition sectors to tackle challenges such as childhood stunting. Four factors that underpin childhood stunting are food insecurity; inadequate care and feeding practices; inadequate access to health care; and inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene. Our analysis showed that unsurprisingly a child who has access to one of these factors, on average, is taller than a child without any access.  However, we also observed synergies when a child has access to a combination of these factors including WASH at the same time. In other words, in combination these factors add up to more (in child height) than the simple sum its parts.
Second, investments need to be both scaled-up and better targeted if people living in poverty are to be reached with improved water and sanitation services. Our estimates indicate that a four-fold increase in spending is required to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water supply and sanitation.  
In addition to increasing investments, it is important to assess how and where financial resources are spent. The picture we see across countries, especially in Africa, is that while access to improved water in urban areas is about 93 percent, in rural parts of the same countries it drops to 42 percent. That’s a drop of more than half. These statistics are difficult to ignore, particularly in the Africa region, given that in some countries more than 8 in 10 people often lives in rural areas.
Third, we need to ‘mind the gap.’ We need to find ways to better bridge the gap between policy and implementation, which is often the reason why services fail poor people. Service delivery and institutional reform challenges are a mix of technical and governance challenges. We need to recognize that the individual and organizational behaviors that maintain a low quality of service delivery are embedded in a complex web of incentives that cannot be solved through technical solutions alone.

Importantly, we discussed how the WASH PD findings are highly relevant to Africa and already shaping decision-making. In Nigeria, our findings resulted in the country’s President declaring a state of emergency in the water sector, the development of a revitalization plan, and a request to the Bank to support two projects for water supply and sanitation for US$ 700 million. In Tanzania, we’re beginning to better coordinate our investments between the water and nutrition sectors -- because for the first time, we’re able see the overlap between inadequate water and sanitation and childhood stunting due to our innovative mapping techniques.
The main conclusion from AWW was the importance of thinking and working differently.  
We have the evidence that proves collaboration across sectors, across borders, and across mindsets can often be transformational for poor communities. Yes, we need more funding and financing resources in the sector. But just as important, we need to spend more effectively and more efficiently to target the resources where we can have the highest impact – to work where it matters most.
It is our hope that taking these approaches will enable progress toward achieving the SDGs related to water security and sanitation by 2030 – while delivering on the 2025 Africa Water Vision on that journey. Together, we can have a significant impact on millions of lives.


Maria Angelica Sotomayor

Practice Manager, World Bank Water Global Practice

Craig Kullmann

Water & Sanitation Specialist

Luis Andres

Lead Economist, Water Global Practice, World Bank

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