Just two days before World Toilet Day, on 17 November the Guardian organised a live Q&A to discuss with a panel of experts the future of innovation in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector, promising initiatives and challenges.
IMC Worldwide was represented by water and sanitation specialist Veronica Di Bella, who is the team leader of DFID-funded Sanitation Challenge for Ghana (SC4G). The competition is part of the Ideas to Impact programme, which aims to test whether prizes can spur innovative solutions to development challenges in the fields of climate adaptation, WASH and energy access. SC4G rewards municipalities that design and implement innovative liquid waste management strategies in urban centres with a population of more than 15,000 people.
In which areas is innovation needed?
Often the term ‘innovation’ is limited to technological innovation. However, as far as the WASH sector is concerned, much of the technology already exists.
Nevertheless, 1.1 billion people still live without clean water while 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation services. What we actually need is coming up with innovative ways to scale up technologies implementation worldwide.
Innovation has to be defined more broadly, to include not just technology, which is certainly paramount but not enough to meet the WASH challenge.
Innovative solutions have to be found in the areas of service delivery, financing and even data collection. The use of information and communication technologies has the great potential of increasing data availability, leading to better planning and resource allocation, WaterAid and Toilet Board Coalition representatives argued.
As Veronica pointed out, under Ideas to Impact, we define innovation broadly as ‘renewing, advancing or changing the way things are done’. In this sense, SC4G is the first-of-its-kind project because innovation prizes that look at how to improve service delivery rather than creating new technologies have never been tested before in the sanitation sector in Ghana or elsewhere in the world.
What are the obstacles to scaling up innovative solutions?
Omniprocessors, designed by Janicki Bioenergy and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, turn faecal matter in electricity, ash for fertiliser and even water. Sanitation First is building GroSan toilets, which transform human waste in fertiliser. WaterAid is helping the almost 100,000 people who live in floating communities on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake through the HandyPod. The pod treats raw sewage using microbial and other ecological communities enabled by the plants and their root systems. These are only some of the innovative solutions available today.
However, reluctance to change is a major constraint. Open defecation is still widespread and often linked with fear of emptying pit latrines and the high cost of the emptying service.
An increased involvement of non-WASH practitioners such as economists and social scientists might accelerate behavioural change among communities. As for the incentives offered to users, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation developed a SMS service, comparable to the Uber taxi app. It lowers costs of pit latrines-emptying services by triggering a bidding war among emptiers.
As IMC’s experience in Ghana shows, the central government’s support has been instrumental to engage local authorities in SC4G. Innovation in financing is also stimulating and incentivising behavioural change in government agencies. Sanitation is now higher on the government’s agenda and local authorities are incentivised to identify new service delivery methods. The design of the prize, where local authorities autonomously decide what they want to achieve for their own community, with no strings attached, is increasing ownership.
On the supply side, the Toilet Accelerator programme run by The Toilet Board Coalition is bridging the skills gap by mentoring and training sanitation entrepreneurs and help them launch commercially sustainable scaled businesses.
Very interesting debate that has highlighted some of the key issues but also the great opportunities linked with innovation in the water and sanitation sector.
– Veronica Di Bella, Senior Consultant, IMC
Last September, UN member countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim for universal access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and ending open defecation, by 2030. Today, every 15 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. It is a tall order, but initiatives like this Q&A are a valuable opportunity for peer exchange and lesson-sharing and can bring us closer to the objective.
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