While efforts to help communities around the world gain access to clean water, adequate sanitation and good hygiene have made great progress in the past 30 years, they remain ongoing. Under Sustainable Development Goal 6, the United Nations identified these issues as a priority calling for the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” With these goals in mind, over 60 scholars from the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector recently gathered at the Bay Area WASH Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley. The event provided an opportunity for researchers from a variety of backgrounds to present work aimed at identifying and testing strategies to reach the targets of SDG 6, ultimately working to improve the health and lives of some of the most marginalized populations across the globe.
Jenna Davis, director of Stanford’s Program on Water, Health & Development, and Vladimir Kozlow, a Stanford graduate student in environmental engineering and science, discussed takeaways from the symposium, along with larger themes and challenges that surface in their WASH research.
Q: How would you describe the Bay area WASH community, and what role does the symposium play in maintaining it?
Davis: The WASH community here includes specialists from a range of disciplines – a good amount of civil and environmental engineering, but also economics, epidemiology, and institutional and organizational theory. It’s also quite an applied group because, at the end of the day, it is populated by folks who want to make real change in the world, especially for disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. I think the symposium is valuable for helping people make connections across disciplines and institutions. Every year – and this year was the tenth time we’ve held the event – we see participants who are working on projects with a lot of parallels but who were unaware of one another’s work. It’s also important that the symposium offers a supportive forum where people can present less polished ideas and preliminary findings, and benefit from the collective wisdom of the community to move their work forward.
Q: What was new or exciting at the symposium this year?
Davis: In the past few years we were on hiatus, so there was a lot of great work to share and learn about. The sector has been grappling with how to make sense of the somewhat disappointing results of the WASH Benefits study, the largest randomized controlled trial of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions ever undertaken. Hearing first-hand from one of the study’s two principal investigators was thus very beneficial. We were also convening for the first time since the Sustainable Development Goals, targets, and indicators were finalized. The SDGs have raised the bar such that targets focus on household-level piped water services and safely managed sanitation that includes treatment and disposal of wastes. At the symposium I was excited to see how our community is once again leading the sector, addressing knowledge gaps and debates that have emerged around these higher levels of service. This includes not just engineering and health-related concerns, but the economics of water and sanitation as well. Ultimately, we can’t have safe and sustainable services if we don’t have technically effective and financially viable models of service delivery.
Q: What did you present at the symposium, and what feedback did you receive from the other researchers?
Kozlow: The project I presented focused on predicting the sustainability of handpumps in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Tanzania. The project actually began while I was taking a machine learning class. Working with two fellow students from the environmental engineering department we tackled a problem related to water, focusing in on a dataset listing all or at least most of the handpumps built in Tanzania. We used the dataset to help predict the functionality of handpumps, and also predict water quality and quantity at each pump. Examining different components of sustainability for a water source helped us provide a more holistic look at the benefits the pumps provided to the local community.
The symposium showed me that there is large interest in leveraging machine learning methods to explore similar problems. Our analysis can be reproduced in other countries with sufficient data. Currently NGOs and academics collect large datasets which remain underused due to the fact that they are not centralized or standardized. I think that this process could be facilitated if all the stakeholders in the WASH sector concerted their effort. One thing to note, however, is that the type of dataset that we used can only tell us so much. Therefore, it is critical to be aware of, and transparent about the limitations of the data and the methods we use, as well as the findings we share.
Q: What advice would you give non-researchers interested in supporting WASH efforts?
Davis: I would really encourage people to dig a little into the nuance of what works in increasing access to sustainableservice. It’s often not as simple as it’s portrayed in popular media. For example, it’s pretty easy to get funding for constructing new water points. What’s really hard is to find the resources to maintain those handpumps and keep them running for the next 15-20 years. Everyone likes to see water running for the first time – you can cut ribbons and take photos and all that. Nobody throws a party because the handpump didn’t break down this year, but that is actually something worth celebrating. I would encourage anyone interested in supporting implementing organizations to ask a lot of questions. What efforts are those organizations making to ensure that the infrastructure they install continues to benefit communities in the long run? What is their record of functionality 5 or 10 years after construction? I think it would be a tremendous boost to accountability if organizations were asked about those aspects of performance more often.
Kozlow: You can always engage with NGOs who are in the field by volunteering in their projects, or financially contributing to them. I think it’s a very open field, most professors are open to bringing people into their projects. Say if you’re a student, I would encourage you to see what kind of research is going on in your university. There are always a lot of opportunities to engage with professors and research in this field, whatever your background is. The more skills from different fields come, the better the project, in my opinion.