Q&A: Elynn Walter on the Sustainable Development Goal for Drinking Water

Elynn Walter is the sustainability director at WASH Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based initiative that aims to increase awareness of the global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world. She talks with Circle of Blue about the Sustainable Development subgoal to achieve universal drinking water access.

In a series of Q&As with water experts, Circle of Blue explores the significance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for water, how they can be achieved, and how they will be measured. We spoke with Elynn Walter of WASH Advocates about the 6.1 subgoal, which aims, by 2030, to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”

Elynn Walter Sustainability Director WASH Advocates universal drinking water access Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Photo courtesy of Elynn Walter
Circle of Blue: In the 2015 Millennium Development Goals report, it says that 91 percent of the global population is using an “improved drinking water source” compared to 76 percent in 1990. What does that mean, and what has it taken to get to that point?
Elynn Walter: The improvement that we’ve seen over the years is that the number of people with first-time access to water has improved significantly—2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990, which is a huge accomplishment. It took a lot of work from governments in developed and developing countries, NGOs on the ground doing work, the faith-based community, civic organizations like Rotary and Lions clubs, and individuals around the world who were working side by side with communities in developing countries where water, sanitation, and hygiene were absent. More specifically it took things like creative business models, like the ones used by Safe Water Network and other partners that we work with, it took new approaches like Everyone Forever that was first introduced by Water for People to ensure equity and sustainability were components. It took local, national, and global public-private partnerships, and it also took advocates pushing the issue forward. But I would say, most of all it took time and collaboration and capacity building to ensure that governments were in the driving seat.

[An improved drinking water source] looks like different things in different places. I would say that the official definition for an “improved drinking water source” is one that, by nature of its construction or through active intervention, is protected from outside contamination, in particular from contamination with fecal matter. Sometimes that’s hand-dug wells, it might be boreholes, it might be protected springs, it may be piped water that’s coming from a source in a particular urban area.

Nonetheless, you still hear stories every day about communities struggling to get clean drinking water. Why is there an apparent disconnect between the global progress we’ve made and the reality that some communities live with every day?
Elynn Walter: The Millennium Development Goal that pertains to water was to halve the population without access to an improved drinking water source. The Sustainable Development Goals are about universal access and getting access to everyone. But what that means is that, until this point, there are still millions of people in the world that don’t have that first-time access because they were part of the half that didn’t receive access. The other issue is that the definition for “improved” does not address water quality or long-term regular access to water, either. So it doesn’t address sustainability. Therefore, again, there are millions of people around the world who may have received first-time access, but over time it stopped working, or wasn’t safe to drink in the first place.

I think the other issue is that the poorest of the poor are still the ones who haven’t been reached. I think we’ve reached many of the easy to reach communities, but now is the time to work toward trying to address those that are hardest reach, those who suffer the most, including those with disability, or who are located in remote areas, and women and children who often walk miles to collect the water. I know that in the U.S., the recent Water for the World Act tries to address some of the inequities to ensure that universal coverage is for everyone, and not just for half of the population.

What will it take to achieve this idea of universal and equitable access to clean drinking water?
Elynn Walter: As I said before, I think time, collaboration, and capacity building to ensure that governments in developing countries are prioritizing WASH, budgeting appropriately for it, and driving progress toward universal access are definitely key components. I think holding those governments accountable is another piece, and just as we have the freedom to lobby our government here in the U.S., citizens in developing countries and their advocacy plays a key role in supporting, challenging, and holding their governments accountable. And developing country budgets are what I would consider the last ingredient. There needs to be an increase in public sector finance to leverage public-private partnerships and the funding that can come from that, targeting budgets to communities in regions of greatest need, and all of that takes political will and government leadership and action. I think what it’s going to take is a real focus on developing country governments and providing them the support that is needed to empower them and have them show leadership in this area.
The goal states that drinking water access should be both “equitable” and “affordable”—why are these qualifiers important?
Elynn Walter: I think currently the poorest and most marginalized populations are the most difficult to reach, and they are often overlooked. Universal access means everyone, so to specifically mention those two words ensures that those marginalized populations won’t be left behind. I think that’s one reason that both of those words are really key. For example, in many countries I think women and girls are often the ones responsible for collecting water, which keeps them out of school and out of work and is physically taxing on their bodies. The typical water container weighs more than 40 pounds [18 kilograms], and women walk such far distances, often miles, to get to the water source. And water often costs more in poorer communities, especially in rural or remote areas or urban slums. I think including these words is a mechanism for measurement and accountability for governments in developing countries. Since these two words are included, there will have to be indicators that are associated to measure progress or the lack of progress. Therefore, the two words I think help ensure that the governments are accountable to the entire population, not just the low-hanging fruit or those that are easiest to reach.
Drinking Water Progress As Of 2015
Kaye LaFond drinking water access world map population 2015 Millennium Development Goal improved drinking water Sustainable Development Goals Q&A Circle of Blue

Graphic by Kaye LaFond / Circle of Blue
Source: World Bank. Countries with no data are shown in white. Click image to enlarge.
Where do the biggest challenges to drinking water access still exist?
Elynn Walter: I think that sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia are often lagging behind, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Even though globally we’ve met the goal for improved water, sub-Saharan Africa has not. Individual countries have, but not as an entire region. I think that that’s a big challenge. I think there are specific countries that are doing much better. Countries like Ghana in West Africa have moved, significantly, the needle in both the access to water and the quality of water that they’re providing. I think a lot of that has to do with government leadership and engagement and prioritization of that as an issue. They still have time to go, and still have a lot of work that needs to get done, but I would say they’ve got some good progress that they’re doing. There’s progress in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, so all over Asia, the Philippines—again, the system isn’t perfect, but their progress is definitely something to mention.

I think the biggest challenges I see geographically are not within countries of greatest need, but in communities within those countries that don’t have access. You may have a country that’s making quite a bit of progress, but as I said before, those easy to reach are the ones who are getting that access. So how to reach those populations that are geographically located far away from urban or peri-urban areas, or are located in very rural or in conflict areas, is a challenge.

I think there is also the water quality component. Even those places where they do have access, I think the water quality is still a huge challenge, because it wasn’t a focus of the Millennium Development Goals. Another big challenge I see is in long-term operation and maintenance. In order to get sustainability, and to achieve sustainable water points and water access and behavior change around the way people use water, I think it’s really important to look at who’s responsible for managing that water—if it’s the community, or the government, or a combined process, or a local water utility. Making sure that those roles and responsibilities, and the responsibility for the funding for that, is something that is clearly laid out from the very beginning.

As countries, NGOs, and individuals move forward to tackle this goal, what do you think are the most important things they should keep in mind?
Elynn Walter: Because I come from an advocacy organization, my answer is advocacy. I think everyone has a voice and needs to use that voice to ensure that no one is left behind, that they are able to speak for those that don’t have a voice, or that they empower everyone within a country to make sure that their voice is heard. That’s my big message. Advocacy is really key, and whether you’re an NGO, whether you’re an individual, whether you live in the United States, or you live in Nairobi, or you live in a rural village in Madagascar, everybody has the opportunity to voice their opinion about why it’s important for them to have it.
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