World Water Week 2015 - Can we honestly measure rural WASH impact and sustainability?

Side event: World Water Week 2015, Water for Development, Stockholm

Moderator: Patrick Fox, Swedish Red Cross

Panel members: Pascale de la Frégonnière, Cartier Charitable Foundation;  Guy Howard, UK Department for International Development (DFID); Noor Pwani, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC); Heather Skilling, USAID

© SIWI, World Water Week 2015

Determining the number of people we serve although important in terms of quantity and scale, is very different from measuring impact and sustainability over time to justify our investments and efforts and to ensure a minimum quality of what we deliver.

Most of us who deliver rural water, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH) initiatives face the same dilemma, that is: Can we honestly measure impact and sustainability? We struggle with challenging questions related to this such as:


  • How can we measure impact and sustainability objectively?
  • What are we measuring – what are acceptable indicators and targets? What is deemed as success?
  • How do we measure not just hardware (infrastructure) but also software (behavioural change)?
  • If results are below an acceptable standard, what can or should we do to rectify the issues?


Since the ultimate aim is to reach universal WASH coverage, it is imperative to be able to gauge whether we are creating systems that will allow people to access safe water and improved sanitation forever. For this, we need to start thinking about sustainability from the beginning, when designing programmes.


“At one level the answer to the question [of impact and sustainability] is simply yes. We do measure sustainability and impact in developed countries for rural WASH all the time through regulatory systems. So it is very possible to do so”, says Guy Howard, DFID’s lead on water and sanitation policy. He goes on to add, “SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] will not be achieved through aid money. Aid money can help in certain contexts, but the only way the SDGs will ever be achieved is if the resources in-country are developed by increased  investment in human development outcomes”.


While we may not have all the answers, we are accountable to our target population and other stakeholders and should be able to justify investment made in WASH programmes and demonstrate sustainable impact.  


IFRC proposes that for impact to be sustainable, a minimum 70 per cent of project investment, i.e. hardware (infrastructure) and software (capacity building, behaviour change etc.) should be evident, measurable and maintained at least ten years after implementation of rural WASH programming has ceased. But how do you measure the software component? Who will cover costs related to post-project impact measurement? Who will rectify and reinvest in projects that have not worked? 


The software component  – focusing on developing people’s skills, knowledge and competencies is necessary to strengthen community resilience. However, based on our experience, this takes significant time and investment.  


The debate, which was well attended, concluded with the overall consensus that there is a significant amount of information and data out there at grass roots level. Although we are very good in investing in new ways of gathering data (such as mobile phone technology), we unfortunately do not invest as much in training people on analysing the data. Good statisticians are needed to analyse data effectively and present it in a meaningful and manageable way to managers and other stakeholders so that informed decisions can be made.  

Uli Jaspers, unit manager of IFRC’s water, sanitation and emergency health unit, emphasized thatAccess to WASH facilities is a human right. Achieving 70 per cent sustainability and impact as a minimum target is a good start. If this target is exceeded, even better”.  

Under the umbrella of the Global Water and Sanitation Initiative 2005 to 2025, the Red Cross Red Crescent addresses chronic needs in water, sanitation and hygiene in the long-term developmental context. To date the initiative has served more than 15 million people with access to safe water and improved sanitation facilities in 80 plus countries. In addition to this, 6.5 million people have been reached by hygiene promotion activities and campaigns. As we transition from millennium development goals to SDGs, IFRC has a new target – to reach more than 30 million people by 2025.