Will Collective Inefficiency be over in March 2023?

In March 2023, the United Nations is due to hold a “rare” conference on water. Gérard Payen urges the international community to overcome its inertia and make this summit a historic event, during which important political decisions will be taken and an annual agenda will be set to achieve Goal 6 of the 2030 SDGs.

Water settling ponds and community participation to dig trenches in Béni, DRC ©Solidarités International 2005

Governments discuss freshwater at such a large number of international events that their work is now fragmented, scattered across disparate events, with no guiding principles and very little coordination. This results in confusion for the governments themselves, as well as for most other stakeholders in the international community. UN-Water does its best to ensure technical coordination, but the political coordination of various water-related activities remains to be defined. All these events are nonetheless useful forums for developing knowledge and preparing future decisions. For example, the World Water Forums in Mexico (2006) and Istanbul (2009) paved the way for the human right to safe drinking water to be recognized in 2010, while the Marseille Forum (2012) and the Budapest Summit (2013) led to the adoption of a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water in 2015.

In March 2023, the United Nations will hold an International Water Conference. It will be jointly presided by Tajikistan and the Netherlands, and will be attended by all governments. This will be a major event since only UN summits can give rise to global political decisions that countries consider binding and that benefit from long-term operational monitoring. The many intergovernmental meetings held in parallel to UN efforts may yield useful conclusions, but in the absence of institutional follow-up mechanisms, these findings generally do not progress very far. Within the United Nations, most of the meetings devoted to water are organized by UN agencies or Secretariats for international treaties that specialize in a particular field, only covering certain water issues. An international conference on all freshwater issues (all types of water as well as sanitation) is therefore a very rare event at the UN. Water issues are multiplying and becoming increasingly interrelated with every passing year. They underpin the vast majority of SDGs, making the 2023 conference a very rare opportunity to take useful collective decisions to improve the global organization on water issues.

United Nations general assembly, September 2020

The SDGs: A Coherent Vision

In 2015, a revolution took place. The adoption of the SDGs was the first time that governments had taken all the major water issues into consideration within a global program. Prior to that, collective goals only existed for drinking water and access to toilets. In 2015, this very patchy perspective was filled out with supplementary targets for water resources management, pollution and wastewater management, water ecosystems, flooding, public participation, water in schools, adaptation to climate change, urban planning, etc. In short, a complete vision on water issues was born. Twenty SDG targets are directly related to water. That’s great news! But unfortunately, nothing much has changed since 2015 in intergovernmental circles. It is as if the silos of the past have taken over again. In 2018, at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), governments discussed water for three hours but took no new decisions. Worse still, during their first SDG Summit in October 2019, they boasted about their progress on access to safe drinking water, in stark contrast with global statistics predicting that the 2030 target for universal access to drinking water will not be reached until the 23rd century at the pace of progress resulting from current policies. Since 2015, no intergovernmental work has been done to acknowledge and rectify the insufficient progress towards water-related SDG targets. This lack of activity on all water issues stems directly from the fact that there is no specific UN political forum for water. Unlike the majority of SDG key topics, which each have their own intergovernmental platform with regular political meetings, water is not so fortunate and, politically speaking, has been left behind. There is a dire need for collective coherence and efficiency, but this is very seldom discussed since many institutional stakeholders, countries and UN agencies see more interest in maintaining the status quo.

Water tower in Koniba, Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

A UN Political Summit on Water is Much Too Rare an Event

Some say that the 2023 UN Water Conference will be the first since the Mar-del-Plata conference in 1977. This shows very little regard for the UN Sustainable Development Commission meeting in 2005, which brought together all the world’s governments for two weeks and resulted in a nine-page UN resolution on integrated water resources management, ecosystem preservation, drinking water and sanitation, including the treatment and reuse of wastewater. However, since 2005, the only significant UN resolutions on water have been the inception of the International Year of Sanitation (2008), the recognition of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (2010) and the adoption of the SDGs (2015).

The 2023 UN Conference will therefore be one of the very rare events where decisions can be taken on all water issues. This will be an opportunity to make intergovernmental work on water more effective. It will be an opportunity to streamline intergovernmental work, if participants decide to organize an annual UN intergovernmental meeting on all water-related SDG targets, as is the case for the other SDG key topics. This would ensure political coherence between the many disparate existing efforts and enable the organization of efforts to achieve SDG 6 and all the global water-related goals. A decision of this kind cannot be taken in 2023 without active preparation and sufficient anticipation. This will be one of the main issues at stake during the 9th World Water Forum that will take place in Dakar in 2022.

Kick-off meeting in preparation for the 9th World Water Forum, spring 2019 ©WorldWaterForum

Will the 2023 Conference take the decision to institute regular UN political meetings on all water-related SDG targets? If so, the conference will be quite historic. But if we miss this opportunity, the international water community will only have itself to blame for remaining collectively inefficient, for the lack of political attention paid to water and for the slow progress towards water-related SDG targets.

By Gérard Payen, former Water Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and Vice President of the French Water Partnership and Astee

Who is Gérard Payen ?

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of numerous water-related global sustainable development objectives. Today, he is a director of 3 major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilise the international community for a better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. At the same time, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce the world’s water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water problems that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.

The environment is also a humanitarian issue.

Reducing the negative environmental impact of humanitarian interventions in the areas of Water, Hygiene and Sanitation: the example of Solidarités International’s strategic sanitation program.

On September 21, 2020, Aude Lazzarini, head of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene division at Solidarités International (SI) presented how SI takes into account and integrates environmental issues in its operations. This presentation took place during a meeting of the Groupe de Réflexion Urgence Post-Urgence (GRUPC), hosted by Médecins du Monde, in its Parisian headquarters.

The GRUPC was created in 2009. It is an informal space for information, reflection and exchange between humanitarian leaders, experts, representatives of foundations and public authorities. The first presidents of the GRUPC were Benoît Miribel, Anne Héry, and then Philippe Ryfman. This group is now chaired by Francis Chahron.

Aude Lazzarini spoke at a meeting questioning the environmental impact of humanitarian action.

Taking the environment into account, an issue at the heart of Solidarités International’s 2020-2025 program priorities

In recent decades, the environment has been under constant and increasing anthropogenic pressure: global warming, deforestation, soil depletion, disappearance of arable land, decrease and degradation of water resources, etc. The environment is under constant and increasing pressure. These phenomena contribute to the social and economic precariousness of the most vulnerable populations, weakening their resilience to shocks and stresses. At the same time, the recurrence of natural disasters continues to increase both in frequency and intensity.

Solidarités International – a confirmed humanitarian actor – has set itself the mission of providing assistance as quickly and effectively as possible to populations that are victims of conflicts, epidemics and natural disasters. The NGO responds to their vital needs and accompanies them until they regain the means of subsistence and autonomy to face future challenges with dignity.

As such, Solidarités International is convinced that the environmental issue must be of major importance to the humanitarian community. Moreover its interventions are often concentrated in fragile and/or degraded contexts, suffering from a structural deficit (in terms of legislative framework, public services, rational management of resources etc.), and particularly vulnerable to climatic hazards. Humanitarian actors thus have a duty to set an example and to limit/mitigate the impact of their interventions on the environment.

However, taking environmental issues into account during humanitarian operations is relatively complex. Humanitarian actors often operate in rather constraining areas due to restricted access to the field and to data on the situation and the environment of intervention (population, customs, hydrogeology, topography, etc.), limited private sector supply, degraded functioning of public institutions, high exposure to climatic hazards, etc. Moreover, they often act in emergency situations requiring a rapid response and limiting, or even not allowing, the realization of studies and investigations over a long period of time. In these contexts, the preparation and anticipation of environmental issues then become essential.

For the past two years, Solidarités International has been carrying out an in-depth strategic review of its operating methods. The NGO has integrated the consideration of the environment at the heart of its programmatic strategy, which has the overall objective of supporting the most vulnerable people affected by crises to better cope with shocks and pursue their future prospects.

SI finalized its environmental policy in 2020. It reflects the importance given to the sustainability of its interventions. The framework document that accompanies its implementation will be added to it by the end of the year.

This positioning document recognizes the importance of taking the environment into account when designing and implementing interventions, as well as in the logistical processes that accompany them. SI is committed to integrating the challenges of environmental awareness at the following 3 levels:

  • Headquarters level: energy efficiency, waste sorting, responsible purchasing of goods and services, rationalization of international business travel, etc.
  • Field operations: supply chain (responsible purchasing of goods and services/transportation/storage), vehicle fleet, energy management, waste recycling, etc.
  • Programs (design, implementation and monitoring): environmental risk analysis, protection and sustainable management of natural resources, prevention and appropriate management of waste, limitation of negative effects on the environment, containment of health risks, etc.
Emptyers in action in a latrine in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.®Solidarités International

Concretely, during its interventions, SI is committed to considering environmental issues from two perspectives:

  • The reduction of the negative environmental impacts of interventions and office operations;
  • Strengthening the sustainability of its interventions, by reducing the exposure and vulnerability of populations and systems to climatic hazards and the degradation and/or depletion of natural resources, through the implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures.

The operational application of its commitments through sector strategies for 2020-2025

The “programmatic” operationalization of SI environmental policy is achieved through its technical programmatic strategies, or sectoral strategies. To date, the “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” and “Food Safety and Livelihoods” strategies have been completed and constitute the first SI sector strategies.

The WASH 2020-2025 strategy is ambitious and places public health, well-being and dignity of the affected populations at the center of its interventions. It is in line with the global logic of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and aims to achieve, in a degraded context, SDGs 3 and 6 which target, respectively, health and well-being and universal access to drinking water and sanitation by 2030. This WASH sector strategy targets 3 priority programmatic axes, for which Solidarités International aims to improve practices and develop expertise, knowledge and innovations.

Strengthening the fight against epidemics :

This will implies strengthening multisectoral coordination and increasing the number of joint actions and initiatives between the EAH and Health sectors. It includes consolidating local epidemiological surveillance systems – including community and environmental surveillance -, improving the predictability of epidemics and the effectiveness of rapid responses, and strengthening drinking water, sanitation and hygiene services in treatment centers and urban “hotspots” for endemic diseases.

Strengthening the quality of WASH interventions in the shock absorption phase :

During this first phase of emergency response, the objective is to better consider the “do not harm” principle. This is done by systematizing (i) the implementation of protective measures against all forms of violence and attacks on the well-being and dignity of the affected populations, (ii) by containing health risks as much as possible and (iii) by minimizing negative environmental impacts. On this last point, SI has prioritized – among other things – better preservation and management of water resources for the coming period. The objective is, for example, to put in place, as soon as the various players arrive in the field, sufficient coordination and monitoring of the water resources used. When this is not done, it can lead to overexploitation of resources, as it was the case in Maiduguri in Nigeria. The exploitation of the artesian aquifer – in order to meet the high demand generated by the massive influx of IDPs (internally displaced people) – has led to a significant drop in the static level of the aquifer. The absence of specific monitoring limited the capacity to implement mitigation measures in time.

Another common problem concerns sanitation. In the early stages of crisis response, sanitation services are often not considered as a full-fledged sector comprising several steps: excreta collection, transport, treatment and disposal. Humanitarian action tends to focus on the construction of latrines – to collect excreta and contain health risks – while “forgetting” the actions of emptying and treating sludge. Sludge is usually handled by the informal private sector. However, the informal private sector does not always take into account the environment and the negative impacts that its actions can have on it. It sometimes deposits excreta in nature, thereby exposing populations to health risks and the environment to heavy pollution.

This practice – of not taking into account the entire sanitation chain in the first phase of an emergency – is quite common in the humanitarian sector given the difficulty of setting up effective treatment systems. The design, dimensioning and commissioning of these systems requires expertise, reflection, studies and training – activities that take place in a temporality quite different from the urgency of humanitarian action. The question is therefore the following: how to do well and quickly activities involving opposite temporalities, all in a degraded context? As we will see below, SI has developed a specific strategic sub-program to address these issues.

Strengthening public WASH services in degraded contexts :

This last programmatic priority involves supporting local authorities in maintaining and/or strengthening their essential WASH public services in degraded, crisis-affected areas, where pressure on these services is increased due to a massive influx of forcibly displaced persons (IDPs and refugees) or to the outbreak of an epidemic. It is happening, for example, in northern Burkina Faso, where large numbers of refugees are arriving in urban centers. This influx of people adds strong pressure on an already fragile and degraded drinking water supply service. Demand is becoming too great in relation to supply and is further weakening an already obsolete service. In this context, integrated water resource management is a key component of environmental awareness. It is necessary to systematize good practices to guarantee optimal performance of infrastructures and rational use of the resource and thus ensure that there is no overexploitation of the groundwater, in a logic of anticipation of the future recovery of the area.

Intervention logic and principles of intervention EAH of SI ®Solidarités International

The strategic sub-programme on sanitation – facilitating the development of complete value chains

SI develops thematic strategic programs in order to propose concrete solutions to problems encountered in the field and thus “operationalize” the organization’s positioning and political will.

The objective of the specific “Sanitation” program is as follows: knowing that often leaves behind the treatment of sewage sludge in emergency situations, SI wishes to actively support the systematization of the development of complete sanitation systems in humanitarian contexts.

Manual transport of sewage sludge, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International
Drying of sewage sludge, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International

To do so, SI has developed a specific program for sanitation in crisis context. It aims to support the design and implementation of effective and sustainable sludge treatment solutions in long-term crisis contexts (> one year), while proposing temporary solutions for emergency response. The latter make it possible to confine health risks while waiting for sustainable sludge treatment solutions to be put into service.

The concrete problem in the field is the duration of the feasibility studies required for the design and dimensioning of treatment centers, as well as the construction and commissioning times. Generally, these initial actions can take up to a year. The question is therefore what temporary solutions can be implemented, pending the installation and commissioning of sustainable technologies.

SI seeks to develop, with partners such as the Veolia Foundation or Tufts University, transitional responses to limit health risks and negative environmental impacts. These are innovative solutions that are generally costly in terms of operating costs, but whose investment costs are fairly low. They make it possible to contain the risk before setting up more permanent structures, which have high investment costs but limited operating costs.

Two temporary solutions to limit environmental risk: bio-additives and sludge sanitization

SI will soon start two pilot tests in partnership with the Véolia Foundation. The first one on bio-additives, which are micro-organisms that degrade faecal matter. They would make it possible to limit the volume of sludge and have a greater time interval between each emptying. Less sludge would therefore be produced and the risk for the environment and health would be reduced.

The second research focuses on a solution developed by the Fondation Véolia – the SANIFORCES – with which SI would be associated for the field tests. These are modular systems that would allow sludge to be hygienized by diverting the methanization process – thus achieving a 99.9% reduction in pathogens, which would allow the sludge to be disposed of in nature without spreading a health hazard. A rigorous selection of disposal sites would be associated with this process in order to also limit environmental risks, particularly the pollution of water resources.

These two solutions are temporary, but SI is also seeking to identify sustainable solutions adapted to long-term crises. For this purpose, SI has developed a website, Octopus (see our article on this collaborative platform here), which promotes experience sharing and disseminates feedback on treatment solutions implemented in the main theaters of humanitarian action. The objective is thus to draw up an exhaustive picture of all sludge treatment processes that exist in the humanitarian context. The solutions are described and their advantages and disadvantages are detailed in order to help practitioners choose the most appropriate solution for their field.

Sludge treatment plant, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International
Sludge treatment plant, Sittwe, Myanmar. 2020 ®Marine Ricau / Solidarités International

At the same time, Solidarités International is professionalizing and increasing the efficiency of its existing sludge treatment plants. In Myanmar, for example, SI – in partnership with the Veolia Foundation – is improving the quality of its sludge treatment plant (find our article on this laboratory in Myanmar here). The NGO also wishes to conduct a thesis project to explore ways in which the outputs of this process could be used for agricultural reuse (compost and irrigation water).

Taking the environment into account is thus a key issue at Solidarités International. It is integrated into SI‘s development strategies because the populations supported by the NGO are often the most vulnerable to climatic hazards. For ethical and exemplary reasons, Solidarités International therefore considers it essential to take into account the environmental impact of its programs.

Aude Lazzarini

Water, Hygiene and Sanitation Manager

Operations Department Program Assistant, Solidarités International

DOAP Contact: Program Director, Anne-Lise Lavaur: allavaur@solidarites.org

Questions & Answers

Following Aude Lazzarini’s intervention, participants were able to ask questions on and comment the presentation. The issue of access to expertise was raised and Aude was able to present the different levers put in place at SI to strengthen partnerships in a “multi-actor” logic. Participants also discussed the role of innovation and the obstacles to the development of innovative techniques. These difficulties are both financial and linked to a positioning of the sector that is rather risk averse, although risk is necessary for innovation.

Comment: I would like to highlight a point of difficulty in Solidarités International approach, which is the time, skills and cost that all these activities entail. This is a real problem when you have little equity capital and an additional challenge – to do better with limited resources. What Aude and her team have developed is interesting because they have worked with operational or academic actors who bring other essential skills. The “multi-actor” approach is important because it allows us to find solutions that we cannot afford on our own, either financially or scientifically.

Question: Faced with the question of lack of means, my question is: are there any working groups, development groups to reflect on these overall questions that you have presented? At SI, have you met with other NGOs to collectively think about these questions?

Aude Lazzarini: Yes, indeed, we are part of working groups on these questions. For example, on a global scale, we are very active in the Global Wash Cluster, which is a coordinating body for humanitarian action. We are part of a specific working group on sanitation and we have a lot of exchanges with other NGOs, Oxfam, for example, which has also prioritized sanitation for the coming years. Our site, Octopus, has just been put online on the GWC website.

At the national level, we are mainly involved in working groups on access to WASH services in emergency situations with the PFE group (French Water Partnership). Here too, we are working on multi-actors. The difficulty is that there are many issues and it is difficult to address them all.

Finally, our active participation in Groupe URD’s Humanitarian Environment Network has allowed us to mature our thinking on issues related to taking the environment into account, in terms of programm and logistics, with other humanitarian actors operating in the field and to advance our positioning.

One of the limits we encounter at SI is access to expertise. WASH responses require the mobilization of a wide range of skills that cannot always be fully internalized within NGOs, and this is essential if we want to (better) take the environment into account (among other things). This is one of the reasons why we have developed a lot of multi-stakeholder involvement, through consortiums and partnerships. We also have many projects underway – in conjunction with our main technical sponsors (Aquassistance, Fondation Véolia, ESF, Renewgies, etc.) – to set up hotlines to optimize the technical support provided to teams in the field.

The other difficulty, which is one of the main limitations for SI, is access to the financial counters that enable innovation to be financed. To innovate, we have to take risks, test solutions, define whether they work or not. But we are in an environment that, from a technical point of view, is somewhat risk-averse. We tend to want things to work the first time around, we often prefer conventional approaches, etc. All this is a limit to questioning our practices and improving them. When, in addition, the organization has little equity, as is the case with SI, it is all the more challenging.

Comment: I would like to add a comment about the environmental impact of our activities. If we want to work on these issues, the technologies we develop must also be robust, appropriate and not generate significant environmental impacts. We have to think about a logic of technology, of response that integrates, from its conception, this problem. We must not throw ourselves into new technological solutions which, if we look at them according to their overall ecological balance sheet, will have other effects, some of which will be harmful to the environment.

Question: You brought up the subject of doing things quickly and well, when we barely have the time to do them well. The question of global vision in anticipation of crises is a very interesting subject. Are the resources you have developed freely accessible?

A.L.: Yes, of course. In the WASH strategy of Solidarités International, there are thematic axes, but also specific institutional objectives. For water, sanitation and hygiene, the first intention is to strengthen the fight against epidemics and to provide efficient and adapted WASH services; the second is to innovate and develop access to expertise. The third intention, which answers your question, is advocacy and knowledge sharing. We want to share the results of all the research that is being undertaken and thus contribute to the production of knowledge within the sector and disseminate it widely. For example, for research on bio-additives, we are working with an academic partner and we will arbitrate whether this technology works or not. If it doesn’t work, we will disseminate the fact that it was a failure. We can close the debate and try to find other solutions. The idea is always to serve the sector and humanitarian action.

Question: Have you set up partnerships with fundamental research institutes?

A.L.: Yes, absolutely. We have a partnership with Tufts University, which specializes in WASH issues in humanitarian contexts. We have also just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Johns Hopkins University for all operational research on cholera responses. There is a lot of empirical work being done in the field of WASH. The idea is to question these approaches and see if we can gain efficiency. For example, during a cholera epidemic, homes are systematically disinfected within a radius of 50 to 100 meters. We need to ask ourselves why we do this, what is the impact of this action and whether there are other more adequate practices.

Who is Aude Lazzarini?

Aude Lazzarini BWAude Lazzarini is an engineer in industrial environmental engineering, specializing in urban hydraulics. After an 18-month experience with the largest French public water utility, Aude worked for 13 years as project manager and technical expert on drinking water and sanitation access projects. She has thus developed strong technical (APS/APD/hydraulic modelling) and institutional skills in setting up and optimising public drinking water and sanitation services (organisational and institutional diagnostics, Public-Private Partnerships and Public Service Delegation contracts, setting up Output-Based Aid type financing mechanisms, training and capacity building, drafting of procedure manuals, etc.), as well as in the field of social engineering (household surveys, analysis of solvent demand, IEC and social intermediation activities).

Aude has also contributed to the elaboration of several national sectoral policy documents and strategies. Since 2018, she has been in charge of the Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene unit at Solidarités International, and has specialized in the issues of access to WASH services in degraded contexts.

Aude therefore has a solid experience of the technical, economic, social and institutional issues specific to the water and sanitation sector in low and middle income countries and fragile contexts. You can find her on LinkedIn, here.