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Clarissa Brocklehurst, UNICEF, speaks from WASH 2011

"When we talk about water and sanitation, the impact on the world from health issues alone is stunning," said Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) - a keynote speaker at the WASH 2011 Conference in Brisbane.
Clarissa Brocklehurst, UNICEF, speaks from WASH 2011

Clarissa Brocklehurst, UNICEF, keynote speaker at WASH 2011

“Millions of children die every year from something as simple as diarrhoea because they live in contaminated environments, and many others go to school in weakened states because of disease and worm infestations. This has a huge effect on the economic development of countries.”

WASH 2011 Conference

Ms Brocklehurst was speaking at the recent WASH 2011 Conference in Brisbane, sponsored by AusAid and hosted by the International WaterCentre, where practitioners and professionals from governments, donors and NGOs, students and academics from around the world met to discuss one of the greatest challenges to the water, sanitation and hygiene sector – sustainability.

Water – on track, but …

Despite the shocking facts of child health, Ms Brocklehurst says we are on track for reaching the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets relating to water. But even so, she says, there are still 880 million people, very often poor and rural, who do not have access to clean, safe water. Women and girls still spend much of their time walking long distances to collect water, limiting their time for attending school and participating in the development of their communities. And in spite of the dire state of water and sanitation that these facts reveal, it is still difficult to communicate the importance of this situation to policy-makers and politicians.


There has been huge growth in the amount of aid coming into the water sector over the last years. However, much of that aid targets larger systems, such as piped water in wealthier urban settings, while progress in rural areas is still slow. Where progress is being made in rural areas, it is mostly in point sources such as boreholes with handpumps, which present challenges for sustainability. For poor and rural users, Ms Brocklehurst says, we have failed to create a demand for sustainability and supply, which would see improvements in the situation.

Sanitation – not on track, but …

Although figures for water are fairly dismal, the figures for sanitation, Ms Brocklehurst says, are chilling. We are not on track to meet the MDG targets; 2.6 billion people do not have improved sanitation facilities, such as sewers or septic tanks or latrines; and 1.6 billion of those people still have no option but to defecate in the open.

However, in sanitation the discourse is different. The focus is on changing social norms. Expectations are altering. Communities are becoming empowered, they are speaking up and taking action to make themselves open-defecation-free, insisting not only sanitation, but sustained sanitation, and these changes are starting to be reflected in the data.


In the past, less money has been put into sanitation than into water. With aid now being directed into sanitation as well, we are able to look at what’s been done in water and learn lessons that can be applied in sanitation.

WASH keynoteWhat can we learn?

From our failures we can learn that community management of rural water supply systems, on its own, doesn’t work. Poor and remote communities cannot manage supply chains and the skills and revenue required to maintain systems for water or sanitation. They need the support of local governments and markets which can set up and maintain systems for water and sanitation that can be sustained.

From our successes we can learn from each other, what’s been tried and what’s worked. At conferences such as the WASH 2011 conference, practitioners can share stories from all around the world. For example, Ms Brocklehurst said, “in Bangladesh an approach called community-led total sanitation was born, and it has achieved rapid increases in sanitation coverage among both poor and non-poor. There are other countries which are now starting to duplicate those kinds of approaches, and are also seeing success.”

From urban utility reform we can learn to treat users of systems as customers, to give them a voice and be accountable to them, Ms Brocklehurst says. If we can provide a reliable service to users, so that when they turn on a tap or use a pump water comes out, they will develop trust in that service and support it. If we also give incentives to public or private sector operators they will provide these reliable services. This creates a self-sustaining system where users will pay for an available service, thereby helping to ensure it continues.

From our experience in sanitation we can learn that when communities demand services, they are much more likely to get them. We need to change the status quo by empowering households and communities to speak up for themselves and demand change, we need to change social norms and enable people to think of themselves as participants in the process of change rather than passive recipients, and we need to provide markets where people can get what they need.

From sanitation experience we are also learning that lack of money does not have to be an obstacle. There has been huge progress using methods that trigger people to want sanitation, and then finding ways to build latrines using local materials which are not expensive. With the huge market this provides, entrepreneurs in the private sector can enter that market with very affordable products. “So it's not just a matter of saying people are poor and therefore they need money to do this; we're looking at the problem in a much more nuanced way.”

Where are we going?

“We have an enormous opportunity with the way the world is changing now to be able to help these people, and not just with technology, but with institutional systems, because in many cases the reason that people don’t have water supply and sanitation coverage is not because technologies aren’t available, but because there’s a lack of political will, or there’s a lack of the sustaining institutions for them to both achieve that access and also keep that access, and a big focus of the WASH Conference is on sustainability of water supply and sanitation services.”

But we are starting to see a growing political will to do more about water and sanitation, Ms Brocklehurst says. “Over the next 20 years we may see a revolution of sanitation in terms of demand. I think those 2.6 billion people practising defecation are going to say, ‘Enough. We need systems and we need better facilities and we’re going to be part of the solution.’ It will be a very people-based revolution.”

It will be a slow process, Ms Brocklehurst says, and not an easy one. It has taken developed countries hundreds of years to get good water and sanitation systems established. Hopefully it will not take that long for developing countries to do the same, but it will require patience, persistence and sustained investment over time.

Clarissa Brocklehurst is Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

Ms Brocklehurst joined UNICEF in April 2007. Prior to her appointment, Ms Brocklehurst was a consultant in water and sanitation based in Ottawa, Canada. She has worked for a variety of clients including the World Bank, the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Building Partnerships for Development (BPD) and WaterAid.

Ms Brocklehurst started her career with research into the water and sanitation needs of aboriginal communities in Canada. From 1987 to 1989 she was the Technical Adviser for Small Sanitation Projects on a CIDA-financed rural water and sanitation project in Togo, and between 1991 and 1992 was based in Sri Lanka on a project to plan rural water and sanitation investments. In 1997 she was appointed the Country Representative for WaterAid in Bangladesh, serving in that country for two and a half years, working on a mix of rural and urban programmes. Ms Brocklehurst then became the Regional Urban Specialist for the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) at their Regional Office for South Asia in New Delhi, India, returning to Canada in August 2001. Ms Brocklehurst is a national of Canada and Great Britain. She studied Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto (1979-1985) where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in 1983 and Master’s Degree in 1985.



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