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Communities aren't enemies, we should harness their capacity

December 3rd 2020 at 09:35

Exploring the links between community activism, service providers and Self-supply.

As so many global webinars these days are starting to look and feel the same, it's nice to be invited to more national and local events. Recently I had the pleasure to participate in the Socio-Economic Rights Institute's (SERI) webinar on an incredible case study from South Africa in the town of Harrismith. Ex-IRC staffer Alana Potter and her team at SERI are working hard to highlight the municipal service delivery crisis in South Africa and the challenges of implementation even when you have good law, policies and, compared to neighbours, better capacities.

What I found so interesting about this case was that it is a microcosm for so many of the issues that IRC cares about, at the same time, and all in one town. It touches on improving service levels from piped systems, reaching the poor and marginalised with services, local government performance, collective action and the role of civil society. You get most of that in the short news video below, as the case also hit the headlines in South Africa.

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The reason I got invited was to make a link between community activism and Self-supply, which is possible if stretching the definition of Self-supply. In a forthcoming book by Sally Sutton, there are many notable examples of households and communities doing things for themselves. That includes the 40% of water supplies in the rural US that are self-financed, the women's movement in Ireland that propelled the country to increase piped access by five times over 10 years, or the perhaps 300 million or more people in Sub-Saharan Africa, who rely today on Self-supply. The level of effort put in by people helping themselves tends to be underestimated almost everywhere.

Of course, we also have to point out for balance that communities will not do everything for themselves, especially if the models are externally developed and driven. We now look at unsupported community management of rural water supplies as a failure.

Harrismith is a town with a piped water network and infrastructure clearly owned by the municipality. So, it's not really Self-supply as we use the term. Stepping in to repair vital infrastructure, an alliance of local farmers and community activists got the water flowing again in the town, but not in a way that is envisioned in those fine water laws and policies. We heard in the webinar how procurement rules have generally not stopped crooks stealing, but do stop municipalities from reaching out to work with communities. The only option the municipality really has under the critical section 78 of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act is to outsource service delivery to a private company. There is a gap in allowing community involvement, with laws making partnerships complicated.

So, the community in Harrismith had to step over the line to get their water back. Doing that might be considered wrong by some , but is surely better than blocking the nearby highway, which was an earlier tactic. How to harness local capacities and the interests of the community is not only the critical issue in Harrismith, but also in Self-supply affecting those 300 million across Sub-Saharan Africa. Those efforts have been ignored while sector professionals designed and pushed what we thought were better solutions like handpumps and community water committees. There is another lesson from Harrismith too. Piped water schemes can fail and fail badly. But there are always solutions available too.

In August 2020, SERI, in partnership with End Water Poverty, launched research documenting lessons and experiences from water rights claiming by residents and social movements in South Africa. Read the blog by Alana Potter (SERI) on water rights in South Africa.

Another year, another World Toilet Day

November 18th 2020 at 10:14

Celebrating World Toilet Day again - a toilet in Bangladesh.

Climate won the vote for the theme of this year's World Toilet Day.

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Photo caption: Toilet, Bangladesh. Credit: Ingeborg Krukkert/ IRC & BRAC

This year, World Toilet Day is about climate change, as was World Water Day although in the end that was rather overshadowed by the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 theme puts sustainable sanitation in the spotlight alongside climate change. How might these two different global concerns, sanitation and climate change, be linked? We’ll come to that in a moment.

While for some of us stranded at home it might seem like life is only an endless series of webinars and online meetings these days, you could also live your life as a series of World Whatever Days. This week, the UN list alone has the International Day for Tolerance (Monday 16 November), World Toilet Day and World Philosophy Day (both on Thursday and with some obvious potential for linkage), Africa Industrialization Day and World Children's Day (both on Friday) and World Television Day (Saturday). A little bit more unofficially, Monday was also World Horse Appreciation Day. The same day, in the United States of America, was National Button Day as well National Fast Food Day. The list of topics fighting for awareness is endless.

UN-Water proposes the themes for the world water and toilet days, a small but very visible task in its effort to coordinate across the many UN agencies and partners working in water and sanitation, and spur us Β all on to achieve Β Sustainable Development Goal 6. Recently the theme has been the same for the water and toilet days. Also the same theme is used by the Stockholm World Water Week and many other events on the calendar. Next year for example, World Water Day is focused on valuing water and in 2022, on groundwater.

So when the committee came together to decide the topic for 2020 there was an important discussion. Everyone was happy that water and climate made a deserving theme for World Water Day. But what about World Toilet Day? Is there enough of a link between toilets and climate change to make it a theme of a world celebration day? There was a lot of head scratching about who might deliver content for a day on toilets and climate. The long discussion was ended with a vote on whether a different more toilety theme might be chosen instead (breaking with the World Water Day and climate theme). But climate won in that vote and here we are.

Decide for yourself but there is a lot of compelling content out there making exactly those links. Our own staff and inspired individuals and teams around the world have spent the last year and more thinking about what connects sanitation and climate change and now you can read all about it.

Our teams working in places like Odisha, India, Bhola, BangladeshΒ and Honduras have seen the tremendous damage by storms and floods to sanitation infrastructure, and we are warned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to brace ourselves for more extreme events as a result of a faster, more dynamic hydrological cycle in a warmer world. The wastes we produce are energy and nutrient-rich, and clever designs and policies can enhance their benefits for the environment, or sanitation systems can be hugely energy consuming and contribute significantly to carbon emissions. There are plenty of stories on these and more at www.worldtoiletday.info/

So yes there are plenty of links between toilets and climate change, and a brave decision has pushed us all just a little bit forward.

For our part, we believe we must all work to make World Toilet Day a genuine celebration of success, rather than what it is – an annual reminder of one of the world's biggest human rights failures for billions of people. IRC will continue to remind the world that the only way to break the cycle of failure is to build systems that deliver sanitation and water services that last. Look out for our mini campaign saying just this (see the video below)!

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