Unlocking WASH data ecosystems to boost universal coverage

  • Written by Emeline Bereziat
    11 June 2024
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Water plays a profound role in human development and overall well-being. Its significance extends well beyond health and sanitation, permeating all areas of our development - from food security to poverty alleviation and migration. In the context of the climate crisis, nine out of ten natural disasters involve water, and these water-related climate risks cascade through every aspect of our lives. 

One in four people around the world lack safely managed drinking water. The majority of people without access to safe water live in rural, low income countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 500 million people do not have basic access to clean drinking water, and this situation is expected to deteriorate significantly as the climate crisis deepens. Rural and urban areas face a significant disparity in safe water, sanitation & hygiene (WASH) access; two-thirds of those with safely managed drinking water and three-fifths with safely managed sanitation services reside in urban regions (WHO/UNICEF JMP Report 2023).

Household data

Above: JMP graph showing the disparity between service levels in rural and urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. 


Significant efforts have been made to improve digital monitoring of water management - from establishing data standards and repositories to developing national data platforms to enable decision makers to take action. However, in rural and low income areas, these efforts are often thwarted by a lack of alignment between relevant actors, a lack of financial resources, or simply the inadequate design and implementation of data solutions.


Last year, we wrote a blog advocating for water data as a common good. In this blog, we take a deeper look into how this vision can be realised, the high stakes of inaction, and the key actors who must collaborate to make it happen.


How has the data revolution failed rural, low income countries?

Efforts to create national WASH management information systems have been gaining momentum, aiming to enhance the integration, management, analysis, and dissemination of data related to WASH services. Several countries, often in collaboration with international organisations and NGOs, have initiated projects to establish such systems. One common approach involves the development of digital platforms or databases to centralise WASH-related data from various sources, including government agencies, service providers, non-governmental and community-based organisations. 


These platforms typically allow for the monitoring of key indicators such as access to safely managed water, water supply infrastructure, sanitation facilities, and hygiene practices at national, regional, and local levels. Furthermore, some countries have integrated WASH data into broader national information systems, such as health information systems or environmental monitoring systems, to promote cross-sectoral collaboration and data sharing. 


However, while progress has been made, challenges persist in sustaining data systems and initiatives, including limited resources, institutional capacity constraints, and issues related to data quality and sustainability. Importantly, there is a tension between the type of data collected in high income and low income countries, and in urban and rural communities. In urban areas, typically one water supplier manages water related data. Whereas in rural areas, there are usually multiple bodies managing the water supply - from local authorities, to international NGOs, and donor organisations, each ‘owning’ their set of data. As for the type of data, the only data routinely collected in low income countries is household surveys. While this is essential in identifying vulnerable populations, it leaves actors blind on water infrastructure. In high income countries, routine administrative data is collected and (ideally) used to drive decision making, for example from water suppliers having fully digitalised systems to manage their infrastructure. 


Sub saharan africa - population 3

Above: Visualisation showing the potential coverage achieved through a WASH data ecosystem.


Fundamentally, rural, low-income countries face a significant gap in water infrastructure data, alongside a deficiency in aligning and accessing information among the diverse actors overseeing water management. How can the water sector effectively close this divide and streamline the organisation of water infrastructure data to attain universal coverage?


Beyond the digital platform

We know by now that data and digitalisation are essential not just in improving service delivery, but for allowing for a better understanding of who is underserved and where resources should be redirected. However, constructing a data platform - which is often seen as the ultimate solution - is only the beginning. Ensuring that these platforms are democratic (accessible to district-level actors), valuable (utilised for various purposes and stays up to date), scalable (used by numerous actors), and equitable (accessible and beneficial for citizens, and especially marginalised communities) poses more significant challenges.


Akvo supports the creation of a WASH data ecosystem, which goes beyond a simple data portal or platform. This ecosystem brings together various elements to enable a strategic, data-driven approach to water management. To accomplish this, several steps are necessary, including:


  1. Formulating a national WASH data strategy

Similar to regulations and standards governing the quality and distribution of drinking water set by WASH ministries, a national WASH data strategy establishes guidelines and protocols managing WASH data. This policy ensures consistency, transparency, and accountability in managing WASH service data, and clarifies the processes and roles and responsibilities for how WASH data is collected, analysed, and processed. 


  1. Implementing backbone technology for data harmonisation

Just as water treatment facilities and water supply schemes ensure the purification and distribution of safe drinking water, backbone technology in WASH data management facilitates the integration, sharing, and harmonisation of data from various sources, actors, and areas. We advocate for data platforms to be built using a Digital Public Good approach, meaning that the technology and the data are open source and compatible with various sector standards, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. At Akvo, we use a modular approach to platform building, meaning elements can be repeated and scaled, and are compatible across countries and sectors. This open, modular, and standards-based approach ensures that all actors can gain value from the data, that data can easily be shared and harmonised, and that the costs to building a platform are not prohibitive.  


  1. Identifying a capable entity to manage data infrastructure

Analogous to WASH ministries responsible for overseeing drinking water quality and infrastructure, a data stewardship entity is tasked with managing, administering, and maintaining the data infrastructure in the water sector. Effective data sharing on routine monitoring benefits various actors - from private sector and international organisations wanting to develop water safety plans, to WASH ministries and local populations seeking to improve equity for their WASH services. 


  1. Exploring business and market options for sustainable financing

Similar to funding mechanisms and revenue sources for drinking water infrastructure projects that combine private and public funding, exploring business and market options for WASH data involves identifying sustainable financing models, revenue streams, and investment opportunities to maintain data systems. Too often, data and data systems are lost when a project or programme ends, and we need to explore ways to ensure the sustainability of these systems and the data that flows through them. 


Fostering collaboration for universal coverage

Establishing a WASH data ecosystem requires strong collaboration from various actors, as each plays a crucial role in ensuring its success. All these actors working together create a comprehensive WASH data ecosystem that benefits everyone involved.


Revised DPI image-1

Above: The various actors and their roles to achieve a WASH data ecosystem


National governments and ministries
Governments are essential in developing WASH data policies, implementing and maintaining WASH data infrastructure. They are owners of the national WASH MIS (see step three above, identifying a capable entity to manage data infrastructure), setting standards, and validating data entry. As a result, they have timely data for their decision making, yearly planning and reporting. 


Donors and philanthropies
Donors and philanthropies provide support both financially and strategically, and benefit from improved visibility and targeted investments. A national WASH data ecosystem makes it easier for entities like UNICEF and USAID to identify priority areas for investments, aggregate project level results to an impact framework, and report the big picture achievements, facilitating SDG monitoring. This means they can more easily share their impact with their boards and the wider public. 


Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and knowledge institutes
International and local NGOs will be able to provide guidance on setting up sustainable WASH data infrastructure based on their previous experiences and future needs, for example by supporting WASH programme monitoring with citizen engagement. They will benefit from having a monitoring platform with data exchange possibilities using national or international standards, existing decision support tools customised to their needs, and the ongoing value of keeping programme data once a programme is finished. Knowledge institutes will be able to use data for research and advocacy purposes. 


Local private sector and service providers
Local private sector entities and service providers play a critical role in the WASH data ecosystem. Their involvement is crucial for comprehensive data collection and sharing, which enhances the overall data quality and coverage. To encourage their participation, there should be incentives and enforcement of policies for data sharing or donation. Such incentives could include benchmarking opportunities, access to climate funding, and recognition for contributions to public health and environmental sustainability. By participating, these entities can leverage shared data to improve their services, gain insights into market needs, and align their operations with national and international WASH goals. This collaborative effort helps to build a robust data-driven approach to water management that benefits all stakeholders.


Unlocking the national WASH data ecosystem transcends a mere digital solution. It encompasses comprehensive data strategies, policies, technologies, governance, and business models, with a focus on neutrality and actor representation. The aim is to bring together diverse building blocks of WASH infrastructure, minimising duplication, and ensuring sustainability. Ultimately, this approach holds the promise of revolutionising WASH ecosystems and improving the lives of millions by bringing timely information to all WASH actors.


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Emeline Bereziat

Emeline Bereziat is Akvo's water expert lead and is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Posted in: Water