UN Water Conference should refocus WASH sector on survival and protection

Humanitarian WASH Actors call on sector to face a growing and increasingly complex crisis

6 Feb 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Jean Lapegue, Action Contre la Faim

An Interview with Dr. Jean Lapegue, Senior WASH Advisor for Action Contre la Faim France

Tobias Schmitz: Perhaps you can explain your role within the WASH Road Map and the Call to Action for our readers?

Jean Lapegue: Action contre la Faim (ACF) is co-leading - alongside with the French Water Partnership - the advocacy initiative known as the 'WASH Road Map '(WRM). This initiative will take advantage of the UN 2023 Water Conference to launch a Call to Action by members state to act on the chronic lack of capacity and resources of the  Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector to respond to the ever more frequent and complex humanitarian crisis.  This issue has now been on the table for nearly ten years: it was first expressed by Doctors without Borders (MSF) in 2014 in a document entitled “Where is Everyone?”. In October 2017, based on the questions raised by MSF, the Interagency WASH Group, and the Global WASH Cluster invited nearly twenty key WASH agencies to reflect on the key challenges and opportunities for the sector, especially in relation to humanitarian settings. This effort was facilitated by URD, the Urgency Rehabilitation and Development group, in the form of a study, called “Global study on the capacity of the WASH sector to respond to emergencies”, which was officially presented to the humanitarian WASH sector Emergency Directors in June 2019. Through this process, the sector identified five key recommendations. The first was to refocus the WASH sector in survival and protection. The second was on the quality of the WASH response and the need to focus on the most inaccessible places (such as the East of Ukraine or the east and north of Burkina Faso nowadays). The third recommendation was to enforce robust protocols (such as the 2018 SPHERE Standards) in order to have an effective response. The fourth was the absolute necessity to have a timely and adequate financial support to WASH interventions. The last recommendation was about the connecting the humanitarian response and the broader development agendas, toward peace, known as the Triple Nexus.

Tobias Schmitz: When you talk about the protection of infrastructure, what does that mean? It could have several connotations in terms of conflict, climate change, etc. And when you talk about the protocols, what does that mean to someone who is not familiar with the sector?    

Jean Lapegue: In terms of resolution 2573-9 (2021) of the UN Security Council[1], WASH infrastructure as well as its operators need to be protected in times of armed conflict. Regarding protocols, WASH humanitarian responses are guided by SPHERE standards 2018, which include protection principle, humanitarian principle and Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS). Our sectors interventions are also considering other guidance such as the UNHCR WASH Standards (2020) as well as various WHO guidelines (Guidelines for drinking-water quality, guidelines for the safe use of wastewater), etc.

Tobias Schmitz: What is the WASH Road Map ambition?

Jean Lapegue: The WASH Road Map consists of over 30 contributing humanitarian organisations representing the diversity of the sector: global platforms (such as Sanitation & Water for All), national platforms (e.g. the French Water Partnership), Red Cross movements (IFRC, ICRC); UN agencies (UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR), International NGOs such as Care International, training centres such as Bioforce and IHE Delft and research institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and finally development cooperation agencies such as SDC. The Road Map has an aspirational objective to, by 2025, have the capacity and the resources to deliver qualitative WASH responses at scale anywhere and anytime. This is obviously aspirational because it does not only depend on the sector itself, but also on external partners and especially on donors.

This vision was developed in 2020,  and we are currently in the midterm review of our strategy. We strive to deliver high quality and accountable responses which are rooted in preparedness and resilience. There is also an ambition to extend beyond strictly humanitarian responses and to include more long-term work on the sustainable development goals. Currently, the Humanitarian WASH sector acknowledges that its responses fail to meet the humanitarian needs for reasons including a lack of capacity, sometimes the absence of national preparedness plans, and definitely a chronic lack of funding.

Tobias Schmitz: You mentioned earlier that the WASH sector is not delivering fast enough. You also mention both capacity and preparedness as areas which would need strengthening. Could you speak a bit to these issues?

Jean Lapegue: At the current rate of progress[2], by 2030, the world will only reach 81% of water coverage, 67% of sanitation coverage and 78% of basic hygiene infrastructures (handwashing) coverage. On water, sanitation and hygiene, the sector needs to move four time faster than today if we want to achieve our Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets 6.1 & 6.2 commitments. This is even more critical in fragile contexts, where progress needs to be accelerated by a factor of twenty three on water access, by nine on sanitation and by five on handwashing facilities.

The progress on SDG6 also reflects many other inequities, for example in rural areas, or even at regional level (70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa lack safe drinking water). The analysis of the sector’s weaknesses is contained in the WASH Road Map strategy and can be grouped in four blocks. The first is about information and knowledge management: the crises are ever more complex and the fields of interventions are broader. This is due to the overlapping of different crises such as conflict, climate change, Covid 19, etc. We need to respond to this by developing sources where we can find key information for decision making (this is also why we have research organisations as part of the WRM). The second is about capacity development and the professionalisation of the sector. Here, because the context is getting more complex, the range of skills needed is getting broader including environmental health, climate, etc. Currently there is a strong emphasis on localisation, and this requires capacity building of our local partners too. The third challenge is about coordination and partnerships: there is a strong need to integrate with other sectors (especially public health) as well as to merge humanitarian response with the longer vision of development agendas. In terms of coordination, there is still a need to support the national and sub-national levels. The last point is about the funding and advocacy for WASH.

Tobias Schmitz: if we look forward to the UN Water Conference 2023, with this detailed background, what is it that you would like to emphasise in the run up to the conference and what are realistic objectives that the sector can set itself?

Jean Lapegue: This event is unique by itself: it is the first UN Conference on water in 46 years, so the governments are nearly not speaking to each other on Water and Sanitation under a UN umbrella, which may seem delirious in view of the challenges that we have currently (COVID, climate change, transboundary issues and conflicts). The conference is not expected to have major political outcomes, although it is anticipating a review of the progress on SDG 6 and it is a way to highlight issues which are lagging behind in the sector. The Humanitarian WASH Road Map sees it however has an opportunity to challenge governments on the critical issues of the WASH sector presented above, by calling them to action on the five points summarized below:

  1. Focus efforts towards those living in Fragile, Conflicts and Violence (FCV) settings. They are the most impacted by the multiple burdens of conflict, climate change, poverty, and hunger. A special focus should be on countries with no progress on the achievement of SDG6. It is only by including the most vulnerable that we can hope to reach the SDGs.
  2. Further support humanitarian WASH response and coordination to deliver predictable, effective (timely) and sufficient survival WASH responses and safeguard the lives and health of those living in FCV  areas. 
  3. Build/rebuild sustainable and resilient WASH services that can withstand crises. Building back better and adapting existing systems, from infrastructures to communities, should be systematic especially in countries most exposed to multiple risks (climate crises, conflicts, natural disasters).
  4. Actively promote the effective implementation of International Humanitarian Law obligations relevant to the protection of WASH personnel and UN Security Council Resolution 2573 (2021), including by promoting the identification and exchange of good practices in the protection of WASH infrastructure during armed conflict, supporting data collection on attacks impacting WASH infrastructure, and facilitating access to the equipment, spare parts and consumables required to restore and maintain WASH services.
  5. Support the request to the UN General Secretary to nominate as soon as possible a UN Special Envoy for Water to establish a recurrent intergovernmental, UN-hosted, mechanism to discuss global water issues and to ensure the achievement of SDG 6 and all water-related SDGs.

[1] UN Security Council encourages all efforts to protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and civilian infrastructure that is critical to enable the delivery of essential services in armed conflict, upon request, to meet the basic needs of the civilian population, including by:

(a) Protection of civilians operating, maintaining or repairing these objects, as well as their movement for the purpose of maintaining, repairing or operating such objects; and

(b) Allowing and facilitating safe passage of equipment, transport and supplies necessary for the reparation, maintenance or operation of such objects.

[2] WHO UNICEF data July 2021