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Group at dusk at water barrel

WASH Systems

We believe in working to move away from short-term interventions and towards developing resilient WASH systems: a network of people and things working together to deliver WASH services.

When WASH systems are strong and resilient they deliver services that meet peoples needs. When they are weak, services are poor, unreliable or fail altogether.  IRC looks at the WASH system as a whole, through the lens of nine critical "building blocks". A WASH system is strongest when all these building blocks are in place and working effectively together at local, national and global levels.

Building blocks aren't tidy independent entities: they interact, overlap and boundaries are often blurred. When all building blocks are in place, they enable providing everyone with safe and sustainable WASH services - water from a tap; a safe place to defecate; facilities for hand washing and bathing. Delivering these sustainable WASH services requires strong local and national WASH systems, collective action and change, involving all the people who make up the system.  IRC support this collective action through our work as a 'change hub' by supporting learning alliances and local solutions.

The clock is ticking – and time is not on our side. It seems simple, but getting people in the WASH sector to change the way they think and work is taking longer than anticipated. Building new WASH infrastructure is far easier than undertaking broader systems strengthening and change, and is easier to finance through project work.

A case in point: many people believe a solution to providing safe drinking water in rural areas is through small privately-managed suppliers, many of which do operate effectively around the world.  Yet all tend to hit a barrier when they move from pilot to larger scale.  The reason for this is that while its easy for NGOs and projects to fly below the radar and provide a scheme here and there, scale brings attention. Then hard questions get asked: who owns the assets being invested in?  who regulates quality of services and agrees to tariffs? how long does an operator have the right to monopoly provision in an area (known as a concession)?  For scale - all of these questions have to be answered. And for everyone to be served - they have to be answered for all of the building blocks, all the connections between building blocks and for all different types of service delivery.  That is a resilient WASH system.

Download the IRC working paper on WASH Systems here