In a series of thought pieces published as part of this years’ CAETS conference, Barbara Frost, Chief Executive at WaterAid, explores how data can be used to help provide safe water and sanitation to all.
Last autumn, global leaders gathered to agree a set of promises that would end extreme poverty and create a fairer, more sustainable world within 15 years.
Now the clock is ticking. Ensuring that the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6), achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation by 2030, is met will require a fundamental change in how we all work; WaterAid and our partners are focusing our efforts on this goal.
It is a massive challenge: more than 650 million people don’t have access to clean water and more than 2.3 billion – one in three people – don’t have access to a decent toilet. The result is hundreds of thousands of hours lost to long, dangerous journeys to collect water, illness and reduced productivity. Worst of all, 315,000 children under five die because of preventable diarrhoeal illnesses linked to dirty water and poor sanitation every single year.
In addressing such a complex global problem, data will play an integral role
Drilling boreholes and building the taps and toilets isn’t enough; what’s essential is ensuring that this infrastructure is well planned, managed and maintained.
In developed countries, this generally happens through water utilities that employ inspectors, engineers and technicians and regulation to ensure quality and a fair pricing structure. This is the ultimate goal in developing countries as well. However, local and national governments need purposeful leadership and support to get there. Monitoring of water and sanitation services, and collecting data on which areas are served, how they are operating and which areas are still without, are key components of these efforts.
The opportunities to improve this data management are ever increasing in a digitally connected world. For two years, WaterAid has been bringing its experience to the development of an easy-to-use digital monitoring platform, mWater1, to map and monitor water access using mobile technology. It allows us to conduct mobile surveys, and to share and analyse real-time data across organisations. The mobile apps work both off- and online, so that data can be logged even in remote locations where the internet is unreliable or unavailable.
More than 4,000 non-governmental organisations, governments and research users are currently mapping and monitoring global water data with mWater. Over 350,000 sites have been mapped across some 59 countries and this is increasing rapidly.
In Bangladesh, for example, a sustainability survey in December 2014 included visits to more than 1,200 communities. Using mWater instead of pen and paper allowed it to be completed more quickly and efficiently, without the errors that come with recording information manually.
This isn’t just about data gathering. What’s important is getting quality information and putting it to use and empowering communities to advocate for change. Common information platforms allow for the development of common standards that can then be incorporated into national governments’ objectives on water and sanitation systems.
Ultimately, delivering water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere, means that national and district governments need to lead the way, by making water and sanitation infrastructure and programming a priority, and financing it accordingly. Strong data helps illustrate the need, allowing governments to, for example, know whether water points are working, if they are providing enough clean water, when they break down and how long the wait is for repair, if they are being repaired at all.
Pooling this data across communities, districts, countries and internationally will be key to ensuring that SDG 6 is met, in part by ensuring that alongside reaching new people with water and sanitation, those communities already reached are not falling behind.
Reaching everyone, everywhere – including in remote rural locations and the poorest and most marginalised – requires strong systems for monitoring and evaluation as well as affordable, appropriate and accessible technology and systems. You cannot deliver a service if you don’t know where it is most needed; you cannot repair something that is broken if you do not know that it has ceased to function.
There are still challenges to overcome, including technical barriers when systems can’t talk to each other, and organisations or governments that might be reluctant to share data or to take leadership on these issues. But data collection from a range of sources and knowledge sharing will be key to helping countries create, strengthen and maintain the systems required for permanent water and sanitation services. When communities and those supporting them know who is being reached, and for how long, then service providers are better equipped to reach those without.
Reaching everyone, everywhere with water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030 requires a major shift in political will and prioritisation, investment in human resources, regulation and systems, and reliable information collected and shared to ensure accountability.
This article originally appeared on the Royal Academy of Engineering website.