Let’s Stop Playing Catch Up: How Stronger Integration Helps Us Get Ahead of Threats

By John Oldfield, Water 2017

Investment in clean water is paying big dividends for people worldwide; since 1990, two and a half billion people have gained access to an improved source of drinking water.  Yet 1.8 billion people still are forced to use a source of contaminated drinking water, putting them at risk of disease, and contributing to around 842,000 deaths each year.

These stubborn statistics are linked to clearly missing incentives in the field: water experts often get paid only to provide water, health and food security experts get paid only to provide medicines and food. But this is an integration challenge that can be overcome by more consciously reaching out across sectors.

The Sustainable Development Goals commit those of us working in the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector to universal coverage of WASH by 2030. Achieving universal coverage of WASH systems and services will also contribute meaningfully to other important development goals, food security and public health in particular, and help prevent a number of threats.

To accomplish these inter-related goals, we need to ensure that the key local stakeholders, in the WASH sector and far beyond, are all in this together.  It is a challenge and a responsibility that I feel particularly acutely as a WASH professional, but one that I welcome. More localized, grown-up conversations amongst various ‘competing’ sectors can help us make greater strides toward 100% coverage of WASH, and make vital progress toward public health and food security.

A few years ago, Ellen Laipson, then President of the Stimson Center, said to a DC audience that while she “appreciates the aggregating of judgments” of the U.S. intelligence community and others inside the Beltway, “the real world is going to be about the disaggregated realities.” So even if we in DC think we know how and where water systems, roads, healthcare facilities, and schools should be constructed, and how they should be used, our judgments are often in stark contrast to the ground-level, daily realities faced by families and communities across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

To ensure that the systems and services we help provide are appropriate and aligned with those ground-level realities, we need to reach beyond our own verticals, and design programs to accomplish multiple objectives that are driven by those local needs and ambitions. And since WASH is such a fundamental and cross-cutting factor across all of the SDGs, those of us in the WASH sector are particularly obligated to reach out.

So what does this really mean in the real world of “disaggregated realities?”

Integration Challenge 1: Preventing droughts from becoming famines

When there is an exceptional drought forecast for a particular country, this of course threatens local water security, but also food security, education and public health. We need to get ahead of those threats, not simply respond after the fact with disaster assistance. We have stronger projection ability showing us where the next droughts will occur. Local water professionals therefore need to reach out (well before the drought hits) to agriculture, environmental, even health professionals to determine how to harvest and store enough rainwater in the local aquifers to allow farmers in those communities to continue to work their fields and feed their families and communities throughout the drought. We in the international community can help: how about a partnership between USAID, NASA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Caterpillar to prevent those next droughts from becoming the next (preventable) famines?

Integration Challenge 2: Ensuring public health

We do not know when, where, or the precise disease agent, but we do know there will be another water-related infectious disease (e.g. cholera, Ebola) that could go pandemic and reach our shores. Local WASH professionals across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in collaboration with their partners in the development community, are obligated to reach out to their public health counterparts to design and implement locally appropriate programs to be sure that hands are washed by the hundreds of millions in West Africa, that every health care facility in the world has access to water and sanitation, and that both human and medical wastes are upcycled (e.g. into fertilizer) or properly disposed of. A challenge to water and sanitation professionals: invite your local health counterparts to a meeting on how to achieve both WASH and health outcomes in your next project.

Making these changes in our own behavior won’t solve our integration challenges overnight.  We are all still going to struggle with the inertia of our own institutions and logframes, which pulls us inevitably back to a focus on what we know and what we control.  But by actively seeking partnerships with colleagues across sectors to address mutual challenges, we can bend those institutions over time to help people and communities get more of what they need.

John Oldfield is CEO of Water 2017, a one-year effort to encourage President Trump and the U.S. Congress to prioritize global water security as never before, and to position this issue as a leadership opportunity for the United States across the globe. He previously led WASH Advocates from 2011-2015.


Please help us continue this conversation in the forum:

  • Where have you experienced a situation where your program outcomes depended on expertise from beyond your sector?
  • What implications have you seen from not integrating WASH and other sectors such as health, food security, & environment?
  • Have you ever tried to engage colleagues from other disciplines to support your own work? How much enthusiasm did you receive? What lessons did you learn for how to engage colleagues from other disciplines in the future?