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Takeaways from IWA's Kigali Conference

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

FLUSH was at the IWA Water and Development Congress and Exhibition in Kigali, Rwanda. It was a packed conference with hundreds of people from all over Africa and beyond, and we are glad we got to connect with so many passionate water and sanitation professionals.

We wanted to share three of our takeaways from the conference sessions. We didn't get to go to all of them - as we said, it was packed - but we saw some themes coming out of what we did see, and it's worth sharing.

Takeaway 1: The water world needs better ways to make it...better.

Deepa Karthykeyan from Athena Infonomics talks about digitalization (Credit: FLUSH)

Sessions we attended consistently talked about making different kinds of better systems work out so we could improve progress on sanitation. How we're working now feels outdated for many, and trying to slog through work on improving access with what we have hasn't been working. In one session, guest musical artist Octopizzo said, "We can't solve 2023 problems with 1970s solutions." Well said.

We need better ways to get data digitalized and managed efficiently so water and sanitation service providers can improve their operations. Without data, we will keep stumbling in offering good services; if we digitalize the data, the insights utilities could glean could be groundbreaking. Deepa Karthykeyan from Athena Infonomics mentioned that there's an opportunity for utilities to have a central digitalized data service provider that can help balance cost effective-ness with function, and others admitted this idea was scary and exciting.

In another session, a WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program representative mentioned the opportunity to improve data indicators to help utilities address more nuanced challenges with sanitation systems. We also discussed how to introduce more indicators without sacrificing precious worker time.

We also need better ways to address the non-human challenges with water and sanitation - namely, animals. How do we keep animals out of our water and wastewater systems? One presenter talked about how animals can interrupt and break on-site sanitation systems. Another talked about how animal remains can contaminate water and wastewater systems and affect communities downstream. The water and sanitation sector focuses on the human element around its systems, even though animals can be just as damaging.

We must make flexible and agile governance structures to push forward with universal access. This includes government agencies open to adjusting government policies based on rapidly changing contexts and paid community members willing and able to connect with their neighbors and figure out how to make these essential systems work at home. A government leader in Odisha, India, led a keynote about how the government worked closely with community champions to successfully provide piped drinking water universally - the first state in the nation to do so. Other sessions mentioned similar needs to get governance structures to a place of progressive action, though we all know that that can be a difficult ask practically.

We also need ways to foster better and embrace innovative tools and methods that work. A colleague from the WASH Innovation Hub discussed how many innovative approaches and technologies fail because the local ecosystems either won't provide leveraging opportunities or help them grow in other ways. How do we ensure that the sector and its stakeholders are receptive to innovative solutions and have the processes to adopt and adapt them?

Takeaway 2: Innovation is squishy.

The opening ceremony about water work in Odisha, India (Credit: FLUSH)

FLUSH was part of a forum during the conference about Accelerating Innovation for Sanitation. The forum discussions had much diversity, though there were moments when presenters weren't exactly sure how to talk about innovation. We must recognize that innovation is a word with many potential meanings, making it difficult to grasp or promote. Innovations were discussed when describing technologies, policies, workforce development programs, data systems, approaches, and ways of thinking - that's quite a heavy load for one word to shoulder.

We need to understand what innovation is. To do that, we need to define it and put boundaries on it - how long is it an innovation before it isn't? Also, when does an innovation grow enough to be considered a popular working method?

Having these answers could help us identify what common obstacles prevent innovations from evolving and scaling beyond innovation into the practical. General comments about barriers were mentioned - political will, unaccommodating policies, and difficult financing opportunities. We could start with these and get more specific about what exactly would need to change in these barriers to make them enablers.

Takeaway 3: Storytelling can be hard, but we all need it.

A climate WASH presentation by a colleague in Thailand with ASN (Credit: FLUSH)

It was clear how tricky it can be to get the story right and the results we aim to achieve. We heard some colleagues talking about how even some sector SDG standards weren't completely clear even to its experts. We also heard of the need for better training that resonated better. In one session about Thailand and working on bringing the WASH sector to thinking about climate resilience, one researcher discussed struggles in creating WASH technologies that can accommodate climate resilient needs and frameworks. This story is key - if we're going to help people living in developing contexts, we must ensure their water and sanitation systems support them. At the same time, they grapple with a more difficult environment. On the last day, one panelist also mentioned that the sector's storytelling is lacking in ensuring that everyone learns of innovations and solutions, so progress is slow and piecemeal - how do we ensure we don't leave colleagues behind?

The need for better storytelling was also clear throughout the sessions. Presentations were at very different levels of quality and detail, which sometimes made it difficult to see the connections to the ultimate story of improving water and sanitation in developing contexts - even the session themes didn't always lend themselves to making it clear. There were a lot of details, but colleagues sometimes still asked, "So what?" In other places, some stories shared missed the mark with the audiences or gave so much information that people left with more questions than answers. We need easier ways to access what's important with technical information to better learn from each other and pull progress forward.

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