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Reflections from the US WASH Convening

Updated: May 13

Last week, FLUSH participated in the first US WASH Convening! DigDeep, Water For People, and its consortium of leading WASH organizations – called Vessel – ran the convening, and over 300 professionals showed up in DC to talk about building a formal WASH sector in the US. It was a great week of deep conversations, exciting connections, and building the start of an industry the US needs. Below are some of the highlights we took from the conference.

Convening Highlights

The conference was a testament to the power of diversity and collaboration. It brought together a rich tapestry of participants, spanning the private sector, government agencies, startups, nonprofits, universities and academics, and technical service providers. The event also celebrated inclusivity, with women leaders and indigenous representatives from Native American communities like the Navajo Nation, Yupik, Hopi, and several other tribes, making their voices heard. There was also great representation from community leaders from the Black Belt and other black and latinx communities that have been historically discriminated against.

The feedback we heard was unanimous - this was one of the most engaging conferences our peers had ever attended. The key to its success was the emphasis on building connections. There were ample networking opportunities, and the focus was on workshops rather than panels. Most sessions were highly interactive, allowing everyone to contribute their unique experiences and stories, fostering a sense of shared learning and growth.

FLUSH's Founder at the convening (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Cultural Challenges in US WASH

One of the most significant takeaways from the convening was the urgent need to invest in cultural change to enhance our capabilities and ensure comprehensive WASH coverage for the 2+ million Americans currently without access to these services. It became evident that many of the hurdles we face are deeply rooted in cultural challenges, preconceived notions about the functioning of the US, and the reluctance to openly discuss water and sanitation issues. Addressing these cultural challenges is not just a necessity but a crucial step towards a more equitable and sustainable WASH sector in the US.

Someone mentioned that, in the US, our water and sanitation systems have a “constructed invisibility” that encourages people to flush and forget these infrastructures even exist or need support. Similarly, with many public utilities in the US being bought by the private sector, there is a viewpoint that water is a business that needs to be cost-efficient rather than a public good or basic necessity.

One of the very few panels at the convening - most of it was workshops (Credit: DigDeep/K Lemme)

In many ways, WaterHub shared that these are part of dominant cultural narratives that can hinder progress or change (think American exceptionalism, water as a commodity, and the poor trust in government). These cultural narratives lead to labor deserts, where there is more demand for services than people willing to do the work. One person from the International WASH Foundation (IWSH) mentioned that we had a nearly 50,000-person shortage of plumbers in the US, let alone the utility professionals needed to run our treatment plants.

On the other hand, one tribal leader mentioned that—while climate change has continued to cause many business operations in the US to further harm our water security—many people are working with companies whose actions go against their values because they need to pay rent.

Same-Same, but Different

While the US context is unique, the convening showed that the WASH sector here faces many of the challenges we see in WASH’s international development side. For example, there were many conversations about how important it was for communities to lead processes to find solutions for their specific regional contexts to ensure sustainability.

Similarly, one of the other things that people enjoyed about the convening was that we met up in regional groups to talk about our local contexts. FLUSH participated in the Pacific Coast group, where Wastewater Alternatives and Innovations (WAI) led our group in discussing our local contexts. Much like how the international development space has WASH Clusters to coordinate local efforts, participants agreed that we need regional communities of practices in the US to leverage our voices for advocacy and funding while improving our abilities to share.

The US WASH community agreed that the US government agencies are king for regulating and funding the sector, dictating how we work and progress the US in closing the WASH gap. However, unlike in other countries where there are Ministries for Water, the US WASH sector has to grapple with a fruit punch list of government agencies that all have some part of the WASH sector, such as the CDC, EPA, USDA, and USDOI.

Lastly, we found that the hygiene terminologies in international development don’t serve us in the US. FLUSH ran a session with PHLUSH, the POOP Project, and Love Beyond Walls about this, and we had an active conversation about how hygiene cannot be just about handwashing in the US. We’ll write a separate blog about this soon – stay tuned!

Communicating WASH in the US

Naturally, many conversations we heard during the conference were about storytelling and better communication about WASH in the US. WaterHub mentioned that we must start framing communications about water from a place of love, not disaster. Similarly, we need to shift from focusing on the problem to a shared vision for a solution. People are tired of hearing alarms and concerns, and we can build empathy in this space to educate others and encourage them to ask questions.

Travis Loop (WaterLoop) interviewing Bill Weir (CNN) (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

The Chief Climate Correspondent for CNN, Bill Weir, shared that, “Storytelling is to put on the emotional feelings that come with science facts.” If we’re going to talk about technical and scientific aspects of climate, we need to make people care…which means they have to feel something about it. People want to know what happens next in our stories, too, and we have to show them how we end up in a different place than where we started.

Having said that, DigDeep mentioned that we need to reach our audiences and funders in a way that goes beyond traditional media sources like newspapers and TV news anchors. Ultimately, those are not where people get their information anymore, and it doesn’t hit them as it used to, for the most part. Also, Water& mentioned that we can use art to invite empathy in a way that science facts sometimes can’t.

We’re Building a Movement

By the end of the week, it was clear that we were all in the movement to make WASH access in the US universal. The first step is to show up and work on building trust (which, contrary to how many behave, is not immediately baked into relationships). The second step is to start the slow process of making this sector more prevalent and known beyond our 300+-strong group.

One way to help us do this is to get more data—we need it. The last thing we did in this convening was go to The Hill and advocate for the new WASH Data Collection Act that the United States Senators from Oregon and New Mexico put forward. We hope this can be the first step to making something really good.

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