Last week, I attended the Sanitation & Water for All (SWA), partnership meeting in The Hague, Netherlands.

Skat Foundation is a member of the Research & Learning constituency of SWA and I was there, among other things, to represent RWSN, both to raise relevant issues from our network with SWA partners, but also to find out what SWA is doing that is relevant for those working in rural water services and groundwater management.

If you don’t know what SWA is then have a look at their ‘About’ website page. In brief, it is a partnership that has been going since 2010 and it’s ‘jewel in the crown’ is the biennial  High Level Meeting (HLM) that brings together finance ministers from dozens of countries to discuss and commit to greater efforts to improve water, sanitation and hygiene investment.

Every two years there are also these partnership meetings where over a hundred people get together from the different constituencies: national governments, civil society, external support agencies, private sector, community-based organisations and research and learning organisations. For me it was a great opportunity to talk to WASH ministry staff from a whole range of countries including Laos PDR, Uganda, Mongolia, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, Burundi, South Sudan and many more, as well as colleagues in UN agencies. New countries to the partnership this time included Mexico and Costa Rica.

In the meeting itself, over two days, the direction of SWA was debated in detail. The partnership is undergoing some big changes: there is a new strategy for 2015-2020, which places even more focus on countries learning and supporting each other. Catarina de Albuquerque is the new Executive Chair, who brings the dynamism that she had as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water & Sanitation.

At the meeting we were introduced to the new Chair, Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who called in from China, where he has been meeting the president there.

The main issues tackled during the meeting were how the partnership should adapt to the new Sustainable Development Goals. WASH is relevant to all 17 goals, but most clearly to Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable water management of water and sanitation for all. So should SWA try and encompass the stakeholders and interests for the whole of Goal 6, or just stick to three core activities (water supply, sanitation services, hygiene)? The sustainability of these does depend on water resources and pollution control, but the targets for Goal 6 are

  • 6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all
  • 6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations
  • 6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
  • 6.4 By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity
  • 6.5 By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate
  • 6.6 By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes
  • 6.a By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies
  • 6.b Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

There are some very BIG issues here that go way beyond WASH. In absolute terms, the amount of water used by people for drinking and domestic use is minuscule compared to water for nature, water for agriculture, water for energy, and issues around water diplomacy and transboundary water resources are fiendishly complex, both technically and politically.

I come from a water resources background and since joining RWSN I have been trying to get more movement on water resources issues, for example, by collaborating with the Ministry of Water & Environment in Uganda to develop national Water Source Protection Guidelines. However, I wonder if the scope is just too much for the current set-up. Anyway, the partners voted 35-24 against extending SWA’s remit to the whole of Goal 6, but we await to see what direction the overall steering committee want to go.

There were other really interesting discussions and presentations on topics, such as accountability, engagement with the private sector, four collaborative behaviours for the development of sustainable wash services for all. There was also a really engaging poster session where I presented our current collaboration with WSP on Joint Sector Reviews and got great feedback from a lot of partners.

So what? you might be asking.

If you would like to find out more, or have ideas and evidence that we can feed into the SWA process, then please get in touch.

Finally, the Research and Learning constituency is looking for more partners from Southern countries as we are painfully aware that nearly all members right now are from donor countries.