Is there more to WASH than providing taps and toilets? How the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework can further understandings of access to WASH

Hannah discusses access to water, sanitation and hygiene for our international development blog.

Masters student blog series: Ideas and practice in International Development

By Hannah Roberts

Hannah is a student on our MPH International Development. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Over 2 billion people lack access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in their homes posing severe challenges for those affected. Lack of access to WASH contributes to the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases and neglected tropical diseases, has left certain populations more vulnerable to COVID-19, and has long-term implications for access to education, food security and income-generating opportunities. 

“Boy drinks from a tap at a NEWAH WASH water project in Puware Shikhar, Udayapur District, Nepal” by Jim Holmes for AusAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Although the solution to WASH access is often presented as a need for more infrastructure such as taps and toilets, the problem is actually far more complex. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (SLF) can be a useful tool for capturing this complexity and the diversity of the issue across different contexts. The SLF breaks individual livelihoods down into a number of assets which can both influence, and are impacted by, different structures and processes ranging from government policy to culture (Chambers and Conway, 1991). Using this framework can therefore help with understanding:

  • why do different people/groups have access to different levels of assets and how does this affect their ability to influence stakeholders responsible for WASH?
  • what are the external factors which may limit access to WASH for certain people/groups?
  • how does a lack of access to WASH have varying impacts on different people/groups?
  • in what ways are livelihoods dynamic and constantly changing over time?

For example in Terai, water and sanitation committees on the community level are responsible for planning and subsidising the construction of latrines in poorer households. Whilst broadly successful in widening overall access, systemic discrimination of Dalit and Madhesi populations across Nepal is also expressed in the make-up and decision-making of these committees, resulting in the exclusion of Madhesi and Dalit people from WASH access. In a vicious cycle, this makes it more difficult for these populations to build their assets and negotiate better access to WASH. Although the UN recognizes access to WASH as a human right, it is only through understanding the institutional and societal factors that may restrict access to WASH for certain groups, alongside the different levels of assets people initially hold, that effective policies and programmes can be designed to ensure these rights are guaranteed. 

“UNICEF/JICA/Regional Government Joint DRS and WASH MIssion to Somali Region” by UNICEF Ethiopia is licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

What makes a livelihood sustainable is its ability to cope with shocks, trends and external stressors over time (Morse, McNamara, and Acholo, 2009). A person’s WASH access is not only vulnerable to climate change, with increasing issues surrounding water scarcity and extreme weather events, but the trend of increasing urbanisation and population growth is also presenting a major challenge for WASH access in cities. The SLF is useful in assessing the impact different trends and shocks may have on WASH access and therefore helps communities to prepare and manage their resources appropriately. For instance, in Ethiopia communal birkas and ponds have made water significantly cheaper for households but the supply suffers greatly from seasonal shortages, enhanced by increasingly long dry periods. However, by planning for seasonality and climate-related shocks, the savings made can be used to help families overcome water shortages in the dry season rather than risking their other livelihood assets to compensate (Nicol, 2000). 

Evidently, the SLF is a very useful means of exploring WASH from a bottom-up, people-centred perspective. But is there space for improvement? Although not directly conceptualized, stigma is an issue which can significantly impact an individual’s livelihood. Despite their essential role in ensuring access to WASH, workers in the sanitation sector often face social stigma and discrimination for their roles, which reduces their ability to accumulate social capital. This makes it difficult to pressure for better health and safety protections and therefore risks their physical health and wellbeing. 

Perhaps stigma could be directly included as a part of the vulnerability context to better capture the different factors which might influence an individual’s assets. However, the question remains: does the SLF already have too many concepts to be used as a practical development tool?