Here’s another guest post on water and sanitation, on the eve of our Symposium on that subject. Barbara Frost is Chief Executive of Water Aid, a charity dedicated to the provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people.

A great deal has been achieved since the first UN International Decade of Water Supply and Sanitation (1980-1990). But the goal of water and sanitation for all remains elusive, particularly for the world’s poorest countries and communities. Almost 900 million people are without safe drinking water, while a staggering 2.6 billion have nowhere to go to the toilet. The forthcoming STEPS Symposium provides a valuable opportunity to reflect with others on the journey so far and to consider what we have learned as we look forward to Rio+20 and the post 2015 MDG framework.

The Symposium organisers rightly identify the New Delhi Statement of 1990 as a seminal moment in the journey. There have been many such statements over the past 30 years, too many in fact, but it was the Delhi statement that enshrined the principle of ‘some for all rather than more for some’. This principle of equity is fundamental to WaterAid’s own work but unfortunately it has been somewhat eroded in subsequent international agreements. The Dublin principles of 1992, for example, placed much greater emphasis on water as an economic good rather than a social good; and the Millennium Development Goals of 2000 focused on reducing only the proportion of the population without access. The MDG Review Summit in September last year highlighted the need for a much stronger emphasis on equity going forward, so in some ways we have come full circle, but unless it is front and centre of the post-2015 MDG framework, poor and marginalised groups will continue to miss out.

So what else have we learned, and where next? The Delhi statement called for an integrated approach to environment and health, yet sanitation continues to be neglected by national governments and donor agencies alike. WaterAid’s own experience on the ground shows that the enduring challenge is not just how to provide infrastructure, but also how to promote uptake and use of facilities. This is an area where health professionals have a strong track record. Close collaboration with the health sector will be key to accelerating progress on sanitation.

The Delhi statement emphasised participation and the central role of women. WaterAid has long promoted the inclusion of women in decision making related to water and sanitation services, and we are increasingly focusing our attention on other groups excluded or marginalised on the basis of factors such as age, disability, ethnicity or HIV status. We should take some encouragement from the fact that mothers and children are increasingly central to the mainstream development agenda; but emerging strategies for improving nutrition, maternal and child health frequently overlook the critical importance of access to sanitation and water.

The Delhi principle of ‘some for all rather than more for some’ was based on the idea that access to services could be greatly expanded through the use of lower cost technologies managed at community level. This is very much in line WaterAid’s own thinking: our approach has always involved working closely with local authorities in order to support communities to manage services on a sustainable and equitable basis. Unfortunately, in many cases the pendulum has swung too far, with governments disengaging completely and communities left to their own devices. Addressing some of the myths which have grown up around community management will be key to tackling the emerging crisis of sustainability and ensuring lasting benefits from improved in access to water and sanitation.

Open debate around technical and financial aspects of managing water and delivering services remains crucial, but the intervening years since the Delhi statement have highlighted the fact that providing sanitation and water for all is fundamentally a political challenge. WaterAid and partners have made significant progress over the years in raising awareness and demand among communities for improved services, but this alone is not enough. That we are currently so far off track for the sanitation MDG is arguably not due to a lack of demand or lack of technological knowhow, but rather due to political failure to tackle the issue.

It is for this reason that WaterAid has been a strong supporter to the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) initiative, which seeks to engage politicians at the highest level. The inaugural High Level Meeting in April 2010 was the first time that Ministers of Finance from developing countries had come together with external donors to discuss water and sanitation issues. As such, it marked an important milestone in the development of the sector. In addition to galvanising political will at different levels, SWA provides a forum whereby governments and donors can be held accountable for fulfilling the many political and financial commitments they make. Increasing transparency and accountability for results within the sector is a key challenge going forward and is an essential precondition for monitoring progress towards realisation of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation agreed by the UN General Assembly last year.

We have come a long way in the past 30 years, but there remain many challenges ahead. WaterAid believes that the vision of Sanitation and Water for All is achievable by combining innovative on-the-ground programming with targeted advocacy and campaigning at local, national and international levels. The STEPS Symposium provides a valuable opportunity to reflect and build consensus on next steps.

Other water & sanitation guest posts

>> Gourisankar Ghosh: Rethinking water
>> Erik Swyngedouw: Thinking out of the water box