We have a lot to learn...

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Last week’s Water and Health Conference held at the University of North Carolina’s Water Institute had an array of different workshops, side events and oral and poster presentations focusing on sanitation. After only a day into the week-long event two important messages started to emerge. Firstly, the sanitation problem is endemic in certain parts of the world, especially India, and unfortunately we do not know a lot and have an awful lot to learn. Secondly, and far more optimistically, despite the size of the problem and the lack of adequate solutions there is a mass of passionate and hard-working people willing to address the challenge. There were a range of different new and exciting research projects delving into this complex subject and attempting to uncover adaptive solutions. For example, a project run by WaterSHED Asia in Cambodia, showed that leadership development can sow the seeds for long-term change. Through the training of strong civic leaders target communities saw an increase in toilet sales. More importantly, the project had a reflective nature promoting learning throughout the running of the pilot as well as plans to adjust future projects dependent on learning outcomes. Another larger project is being planned for next year and I am looking forward to seeing the results.

Despite diverse research projects all work seemed to point to the same problem. What is needed is behavioural change. Presentations by psychologists, engineers, environmental scientists, epidemiologists and anthropologists, conducting both quantitative and qualitative research, highlighted the importance of addressing established behavioural practices. If what we are interested in is health outcomes these will not be achieved unless toilets are actually used and safe hygienic practices are adopted. This cannot be done with infrastructure alone. Agreement across the WASH community and different organisations is a positive step. Now that we have a shared definition of the challenge, hopefully what will follow is action research and the proposal and testing of practical innovative behavioural change methods.

Nowhere is this more important than in India. The Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (rice) presented their work showing that there is an unwillingness to use simple latrines; it is not an issue of income, poverty, water or education but one of culture and sanitation behaviour. It is a complex issue and as the Indian fraction of global open-defecators continues to increase, the realignment of human resources to match the scale of the problem will be ever more important.

Jamie Myers is Research Officer at the CLTS Knowledge Hub at IDS.

Date: 21 October 2014
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IDS