Recently, the difficult decision was taken to discontinue the journal Waterlines. The reasons concerned the financial viability of the publication – an ironic reminder perhaps that the financial dimension of sustainability affects not only services and behaviours such as water, sanitation, and hygiene, but also publishing, too.
If you work – or intend to work - for a Government, a non-governmental organization (NGO), a development partner or a social enterprise in a low- or middle-income country then you probably have some familiarity with the communities which you are trying to help. Make no mistake though, if you are reading this journal you are almost certainly an outsider to those communities. Your origins, your education, or your relative wealth, among other things, set you apart from those whose poverty you are working to alleviate. You can never truly and fully share the experiences of those who live there.
At the start of 2022 we take the opportunity to do two unusual things, at least as far as this journal is concerned. First, we present a conversation between the four members of the editorial team, in which we range over the major environmental challenges faced by the planet, explore aspects of inequality, and highlight the importance of the politics and governance of water in its resource and service dimensions.
The rural water story in poorly served countries is fairly well known by now. Much progress has been made, but a substantial number of countries lag behind. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of safely managed water for all (i.e. water of World Health Organization quality standard or equivalent, supplied on the premises, and available at least 12 out of every 24 hours) is hugely ambitious and unlikely to be achieved.
The machinery of international humanitarian response, once triggered and functioning in a country, has a life of its own. A multiplicity of United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations set up their programmes. The various sector- or subject-focused ‘clusters’, established to strengthen pre-emergency preparedness and operational coordination once an emergency has occurred, are activated. Humanitarian response plans are published, and appeals for funds made.
From the early years of the first UN water decade (1981–1990) and for the following two or three decades, community management of rural water services has been the norm. This management model – synonymous with what many countries refer to as community-based maintenance (CBM) – seemed to be the only and best option for ‘keeping the water flowing’ in rural water services, in particular those provided via water points such as handpumps.
Development and humanitarian relief work, and the research, education, and funding which support them, are about making a difference to people’s lives. Those of us involved in these endeavours see the unnecessary suffering, need, deprivation, and discrimination experienced by too many people in our world, and we work for change. The pithiest definition of ‘development’ is ‘good change’ (Chambers, 1997) – change that makes a real and lasting difference to those whose rights, freedoms, opportunities, and life chances are constrained.
The COVID-19 pandemic and international reactions to the death of George Floyd have added to the edifice of inconvenient truths which tower over our world in the 2020s. The phrase ‘inconvenient truth’ received widespread exposure as the title of a film and presentation made by former US Vice President Al Gore in 2006. The film set out to educate the public (and our representatives in power) about the truths of global climate change. There seem to be three characteristics of inconvenient truths: first, they are largely true; second, they are deeply uncomfortable; and third, they seem to defy solutions, easy or otherwise. And yet, solutions must be found.
These days, with the exception of sewered urban sanitation, it is taken for granted that households will meet the full cost of first providing, then maintaining and upgrading, their sanitation services. Whether the sanitation approach is community-led total sanitation (CLTS) or sanitation marketing (SM), or some combination of the two, the user pays. Similarly, households are expected to provide themselves with facilities for personal and home hygiene, to maintain, and, as necessary, upgrade them.
Tuesday is a special day in our household. Every Tuesday our five-year-old grandson wakes up excited by the fact that today the bin lorry will come to take away our household waste – one week it’s the recycling, the alternate week it’s the landfill waste, and every week the kitchen waste is taken away for composting. Together we enjoy watching for and waving to the workers as they take our solid waste away, and we are immensely grateful for their toil.