If we want WASH projects to be sustainable, we need to consider the environmental and social aspects as well as the economic aspects. For example, WASH activities should not cause negative impacts to the environment; they should be economically feasible and financially sustainable, and they should be socially acceptable (i.e. consider the culture and value of the community).
Sustainability of WASH services such as hand pumps or communal latrines also relates to the very simple definition of sustainability that we started with, the ability of something to sustain itself or be sustained over time. WaterAid (2011) uses this definition:
Sustainability is about whether or not WASH services and good hygiene practices continue to work and deliver benefits over time. No time limit is set on those continued services, behaviour changes and outcomes. In other words, sustainability is about lasting benefits achieved through the continued enjoyment of water supply and sanitation services and hygiene practices.
The emphasis is clearly that the service must last a long time. There are a number of factors that contribute to the sustainability of WASH services. A WASH service is sustainable when (adapted from ACF International, 2007):
- it functions and is being used
- it is able to deliver an appropriate level of benefits (quality, quantity, convenience, comfort, continuity, affordability, efficiency, equity, reliability, health)
- it continues over a prolonged period of time and can be maintained and repaired to continue its life
- its management is institutionalised (community management, gender perspective, partnership with local authorities, involvement of formal/informal private sector)
- its operation and maintenance, administrative and replacement costs are covered at local level (through user fees, or alternative financial mechanisms)
- it can be operated and maintained at local level with limited but feasible, external support (technical assistance, training, monitoring)
- it does not affect the environment negatively.
Among the most important of these factors is the need for the service users to be fully involved in its planning, development and continuing maintenance, as the following case study demonstrates.
WASH case study
The sustainability of a WASH service is considered in Case Study 3.1. As you read it, think about the different pillars of sustainability and whether they are addressed here, and then answer the questions below.
Case Study 3.1 Jallele and the communal latrine
Jallele is a WASH practitioner at Districct Health Office. The people who live in rural as well as urban areas of the district and nearby places gather in the market of the largest village, named Kembebit, twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday to buy and sell goods.
Jallele observed that open defecation was a common practice in Kembebit. In an effort to tackle the problem, she called for a meeting and held a discussion with the people/community living in the community. From this discussion, she found out that the people live in very congested conditions and they did not have land that they could spare for building individual household latrines.
During the discussion, the community suggested the construction of a communal latrine as a solution. Jallele discussed the situation with an NGO that is engaged in WASH and was able to convince them to allocate money for the construction of a communal latrine with eight seats. She told the community about the funding she had obtained and discussed the location of the latrine with the local administration. They identified an open access area near the market place and allocated this land for the construction. The justification they gave her was that this area was located at the centre of the community who did not have household latrines.
The latrine was built at the location the local administration identified. When the community started to use it Jallele was happy in her accomplishment. However, after some time, the latrine started to smell badly. The community stopped using it and went back to their old practice of open defecation. After a while, the latrine was totally abandoned as a result of the poor management. Besides, the bad smell started to affect the people who came to the market to buy and sell goods and they complained strongly about the construction of the latrine at this location.
Finally, Jallele introduced a follow-up system to address these problems. She encouraged the community to make a contribution to renovation of the existing latrine and to construct a new facility further away from the centre. She involved the community in the decision-making process and facilitated the setting up of an appropriate management system.
From Case Study 3.1, what do you think is the possible cause of the failure of the first project that Jallele implemented?
She didn't consider the financial sustainability or need for management. There was no money for maintaining, cleaning and managing the latrine. And she didn’t consider all social aspects. She hadn’t involved all members of the community in deciding where the latrine should be.
Which of the pillars of sustainability would you say that Jallele did consider when setting up the project?
She considered the environmental pillar and, to some extent, the social pillar. The latrine was set up to stop open defecation in order to improve the environment and people’s health. When she introduced the second plan she consulted the community and made sure they were involved in the process.