Setting our Sights High at World Water Week

This week, the international water sector has come together for the annual World Water Week conference in Stockholm. World Water Week has been the annual focal point for the globe's water issues since 1991, working to ensure that each year builds upon the previous years' outcomes and findings. The moments of inspiration this World Water Week have come when participants have focused their attention toward the possibilities and opportunities that will come by working more closely together toward broader, unified goals and outcomes. As opposed to the usual rhetoric focused on statistics (many that aren't actually relevant indicators) and lack of financial resources in the sector, this way of thinking amongst water professionals has the potential to break down the existing silos and foster a new era of cooperation and collaboration.

Encouragingly, a growing number of organizations have recognized this need and are acting on the potential and opportunity that exists to achieve unified outcomes.

In one workshop organized by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Conservation International, participants looked at ways to increase water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) resilience by developing close working relationships between organizations focused on conservation and those undertaking WASH programming. The idea is that all issues related to water - whether for drinking, industry, agriculture, and/or ecosystem protection - are relevant and equally important to ensure the sustainability of our precious resource.

Similar ideas on the need for a multi-faceted approach to sustainability were expressed in a media workshop hosted by SIWI. Findings from the Choke Point: China report conducted by Circle of Blue, revealed that China's energy demands are leading to water scarcity. This shows the promise - and opportunity - that those in different sectors will be driven to work together.

While organizations once had to rely on reporting outputs, like the number of handpumps installed or toilets constructed, we are now seeing a clear shift toward reporting more broad outcomes like a sustainable flow of water. The Water and Sanitation Program reported that health improved in the areas they work due to positive environmental behavioral practices, but the major remaining challenge is to accelerate progress in the use and construction of toilets. While also recognizing the need for additional inputs such as toilets and water systems, UNICEF Bangladesh indicated that they are turning away from the one-off approach of simply providing inputs, such as the toilet, and will now focus more on capacity building to ensure sustainable service delivery is realized. The organization WaterSHED, has shown that a way to increase toilet uptake is through market system development that calls on the small and medium private sector to meet these needs, rather than on the NGOs constructing toilets themselves.

As more organizations recognize that collaboration and cooperation are essential to achieving these large outcomes and as organizations pivot and redefine their roles, it is encouraging that implementing NGOs are not the only ones taking notice. In fact, support for WASH by US Foundations has grown from $5 million in 2003 to $72 million in 2010, according to the Foundation Center. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others have demonstrated their commitment to sustainability issues, and it will be important that these funds continue to support programming that builds on this vision and collaboration.

This ambitious goal-setting, focused on outcomes-based collaborative work, is aligned with Water For People's approach called Everyone Forever, which seeks to achieve full coverage for water and sustainable sanitation at district-level. To support programming based on outcomes vs. outputs, and to clearly report, see progress, and react to results of programmatic efforts, Water For People has developed a prototype of a visual reporting platform that is now available online for review and feedback by the public.

The water and sanitation sector is setting their sights high, and there are concrete examples of how organizations are achieving outcomes that truly impact lives around the world, and in ways that will last. Organizations are talking, learning, and starting to work together, giving hope that the enormous water-related challenges can be addressed comprehensively. A movement is building, and the reverberations were felt at Stockholm World Water Week. Now it is time that this momentum is realized by those that need it most--people who are still without water and sanitation services.

I welcome your comments, please join the conversation @johnwsauer, and learn more about Water For People.

Erin Wright contributed to this blog.