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Reframing the Future of Universal Access to clean Water and Sanitation

As futurists, we’re excited to examine possibilities that are dramatic, intriguing, horrific and enticing. But what about something more mundane, such as clean water and safe sanitation? Surely, it’s easily solvable – and not a complex, unpredictable challenge of the future?

What is the challenge?

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are considered to be basic rights – but for many in our world, it does not exist. Currently, 2.2 billion people in the world cannot turn on a tap in their homes and receive clean water. More than 3.6 billion people (half of our global population) do not have access to safe sanitation in their homes (in fact, more than 500 million people practice open defecation). Every year, almost 500,000 children under the age of 5 years old will pass away from diarrhea caused by poor hygiene.

There are more statistics. But the horror of the above is chilling enough.

Is this not a “now-problem”?

To achieve the United Nations’ goal of clean water and sanitation globally, by 2030, we would have to progress at a rate of:

· Six times that of the past rate to meet the safe water goal, and

· Five times the past rate to achieve the sanitation goal.

There is also the complication that of the newly installed infrastructure, only 30% of it will still be operational after two years due to various socio-economic challenges.

The communities that require WASH suffer from extreme poverty and simply do not have the money to pay for services. For generations, they have drawn water from their nearest freshwater body. Rising pollution has made this an increasingly unsafe option. However, this pollution is not always evident to local communities, who cannot understand why they must pay for a historically free resource. Without value for this service, theft, vandalism, and lack of maintenance ensues.

This present state of affairs means that it is improbable to achieve universal access to clean water and safe sanitation by 2030. This is one of our future’s long-term crises.

Forecasting possible futures

To help us think about the future of clean water and sanitation, we can frame our thinking with the “4 Future Archetypes” framework.

1. The Constraint Future Archetype (Probable Future)

Global resources will continue to fund and drive WASH projects. However, because of the social challenges as previously noted, the sustainability of these initiatives will be slow and hindered. There will be little improvement in the health of these communities, and the economic potential of these areas will remain underdeveloped.

2. The Decline Future Archetype

The world’s focus shifts to dealing with climate and political challenges, resulting in decreased donor-funding for WASH projects (both implementation and educational programmes). Incorrect usage of manual technology results in sewage from pit latrines contaminating the water supply drawn through shallow hand pumps. This increases the mistrust of local communities, who have moved back to traditional practices. These water sources are polluted by upstream development and washaways from open defecation. The health of these communities worsen – and their focus turns to survival – there is no room for economic growth.

Drawing water from the river is a woman’s job. The route is unsafe and as the process occupies a large part of the day, many girls cannot attend school. Without education, the possibility of women being economically independent decreases, and gender-based discrimination and violence is normalized.

3. The Transformation Archetype

Poverty has driven significant rural populations to cities, where people believe there will be jobs and utilities (clean water, healthcare, education, etc.) available. These cities were not designed to handle an acceleration in mass urbanization, and therefore the challenges of WASH are swapped out for cities filled with un-serviced informal townships (suburbs). Due to the lack of sufficient water and sanitation in these townships, and combined with a high population density, disease and social ills rises dramatically.

4. The Growth Archetype (Preferable Future)

In this future, for WASH projects to be sustainable, it requires a multi-pronged approach: the appropriate technology, economic opportunity, social and political acceptance, and education. Technology is selected to meet the needs of the local environment, which includes providing treatment for water and wastewater. Solutions are created with components that allow private operators (tariffs are regulated) to generate an income that is used to operate and maintain the equipment (for example a vegetable garden, or biogas from sludge). In this way, donor funding can be spread across more projects (having greater impact) as it will be used as gap funding to make projects viable, rather than paying for all the costs.

Stakeholders are engaged from the start of the projects. They are well versed in the importance and urgency of the solutions to their collective health and economic development. This encourages accountability and value for the infrastructure.

The benefits of having good hygiene and services results in further economic activity, which catalyze further infrastructure and service delivery improvements. Better infrastructure improves the quality of life.

How do we get to the preferable Growth Scenario?

WASH needs to be recognized as a complex challenge of our future. With that in mind, all stakeholders responsible for the implementation projects need to be cognizant of the multi-pronged approach indicated in the Growth Future Archetype.

For projects to be sustainable, budgets available, must not only be allocated to the actual technology and construction thereof, but must also be used to include the appropriate amount of communication measures, educational programmes, and allowance for economic opportunity.


This article was written with input from the following: Iwalda Bezuidenhout, Regional Technical Advisor for Southern Africa, WaterAid; Fredrick Royan, Global Practice Area Leader for Sustainability and Circular Economy, Frost & Sullivan; and John Ikeda, Practice Leader, Water, Castalia.

Images were generated using OpenAI.


About the Author

Samista Jugwanth is a professionally registered Engineer and Technical Director at Zutari, one of largest African based engineering and advisory consultancies. She is also an External Examiner and Industry Advisory Board Member for the Civil Engineering school at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Having been trained in both design-led thinking and strategic foresight methodologies, Samista has been actively merging these toolsets into traditional engineering design to ensure that solutions offered are human-centered and inclusive of environmental, social, and economic aspects.

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