WASH? WASH WHAT? WHAT IS WASH?

By Rosie Sanderson and Dr Regina Souter,

We tend to use our ironic acronym loosely, habitually, with limited regard for our listeners’ comprehension: it’s the ‘hour of comfort’, when everyone, worldwide, wants to turn on a tap, go to the toilet, wear clean clothes, and yes, wash. Bodies, faces, children, hands, to wash. Water to drink. A safe and dignified place to defecate. We all need Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).

Man washing his hands at an old fashioned waterpump. Street scene in old Delhi. Photo: iStock.

The Importance of WASH

In 2021, an estimated 2.2 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water and 4.2 billion have nowhere to defecate. Access to safe, affordable WASH in homes, schools, health care facilities and workplaces is a crucial public health determinant that influences the health and wellbeing of populations on par with only the most critical health challenges.


Inequalities in WASH manifest in both access to and participation in the provision of WASH services. These inequalities cut across gender, abilities, faith, wealth, ethnicity, and age, amongst other lived experiences. In one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, the Solomon Islands, preventable diarrhoeal disease, largely attributable to inadequate WASH, causes one in four deaths in children. Women and
girls in particular often carry the burden of inadequate WASH access. For a large proportion of the world, a functioning water tap or flushing toilet is provided by a relatively well-resourced public or private utility. However, for the far greater proportion, WASH programs are required to fill the gap, working with the most underserved people to improve WASH outcomes. This is not only an infrastructure problem – it also requires the capacity and resources to design, install, maintain and manage those systems, and crucially the need to work with user behaviours, preferences, and local resource constraints.


WASH does not exist in a vacuum, however, and cannot be isolated from broader ecological, social, economic, and political systems. The management of water resources on catchment scales, for example, critically intersects with WASH but is usually poorly unified. We see the consequences of this everywhere. Large cities can have vast water demands and simultaneously pose serious pollution risks to receiving water catchments by releasing treated and untreated sewage. In communities in the Pacific, broader catchment activities such as logging and mining have compromised water security of the people who have lived there for generations. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) has concluded that one-third of rivers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are affected by severe faecal pollution that results in transmittal of pathogens.


As WASH researchers, we aim to provide evidence to improve policies and practices related to WASH outcomes, delivered as programs, projects or services provided by government, utilities or the private sector. WASH interventions have been occurring for decades, with mixed success, so more and better evidence is required. At the International WaterCentre, we conduct a wide range of research, including explorative and formative research, action research, and evaluations of existing WASH services and projects. In an ongoing project led by Dr Regina Souter, we are investigating and trialling innovative ways to advance the inclusiveness, sustainability, and resilience of community WASH outcomes in the Pacific. One of our trials works with the Guadalcanal Provincial Government of Solomon Islands to provide “Technical Backstopping”– regular, in-village and problem based technical support, to progressively and practically build capacities to solve water management problems.


The breadth of our research means we work closely with WASH professionals and practitioners and with WASH users. Crucial to any success is the strength of our partnerships. Over time and with sustained effort, we have built vibrant relationships with in-country research partners, including national and regional universities. Without these collaborators and partners, our reach, understanding, level of societal integration and impact would be significantly reduced. So, next time you watch the river flowing under the bridge, remember your morning ‘hour of comfort’ – and think about what your access to WASH for the health of that river and its people

NOTE: Original article from the ARI Magazine, Edition 4. Link: Magazine

Twitter: You can follow Dr Regina Souter here, @regina_IWC.

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