WASH in the water cycle

We believe that planned and delivered WASH services need to be embedded in a whole-of-water-cycle approach, to manage risks and build resilient systems. Adopting a whole-of-systems approach allows fuller consideration of the range of benefits, trade offs, impacts and risks.

What is WASH?

WASH is an acronym that stands for “water, sanitation and hygiene”. Access to safe water for drinking, coupled with safely managed sanitation and good hygiene, is important for improved health and dignity for populations. Access to WASH is an acknowledge human right and a fundamental building block for healthy functional communities. Conversely, the lack of access to, or unimproved access to, WASH services contributes to the spread of diseases, affects social equality and education, and contributes to poverty by undermining economic potential.


As a global community, we are making progress in reducing WASH-related illnesses. The latest UN/WHO Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) figures highlight that in the last 17 years, 1.8 billion gained access to least basic drinking water services and 2.1 billion shifted from open defecation practices to have access to at least basic sanitation services.

While these are improvements worth celebrating, still too many vulnerable and marginalised communities lack access to basic drinking water services.

Latest JMP data highlights that:

  • 750 million people still don’t have access to at least basic drinking water services
  • 5 billion people don’t have access to even basic sanitation services
  • 4 billion people had no opportunity to practice basic hygiene.

WASH sector

Much of this progress has been achieved though communities, governments, civil society and business working together, forming the WASH sector, who work collectively within an enabling environment (consisting of structures, policies and institutions) to improve service delivery mechanisms.

There is broad acceptance that WASH sector can be conceptualised as complex socio-technical system. While there are still many challenges associated with strengthening the enabling environment and local capacity to deliver services, increasing attention needs to consider the resilience of delivery systems in local environmental boundaries, particularly considering factors that affect security of access to limited water resources.

This systems approach to WASH is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal 6, which supports an integrated water management approach. The SDG Agenda 2030 challenges us all to “take bold and transformative steps to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.” Full consideration of risk needs to also consideration of resilience to disaster and live-ability for all communities. These aspects direct the need to consider Goal 11 – Sustainable Cites and Communities – which includes a focus on ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable and basic services and to upgrade slums, and Goal 13 – Action on Climate – which includes strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.

WASH in the water cycle

We advocate for a whole-of-water-cycle approach to the planning and delivery of WASH services. While progress in delivery of services has benefited many, climate change, land use change, poor water use and competition for allocated water collectively increases water scarcity. Discharge of untreated waste also impacts on downstream fresh water sources available for human use.

We believe that planning and delivery of WASH services that is embedded in a whole-of-water-cycle approach is critical to managing risks and building resilient systems.  Adopting a whole-of-systems approach allows fuller consideration of the range of benefits, trade offs, impacts and risks.

For example, poor sanitation can have significant impacts on local water security if the design of sanitation facilities and systems do not properly consider the downstream impacts. Sanitation with poor, or no, containment and treatment of human waste can reduce the quality of local water ways, and depending upon the sanitation technologies being used, can use significant quantities of local water. Downstream human and ecological communities are impacted when the costs of deteriorated water quality and deceased water quantity are not integrated in the delivery of WASH services.

Longer term changes in rainfall patterns can further impact on water security for drinking water and health outcomes. This can vary from region to region, but often it is the more social and economically vulnerable regions that are hit hardest. For example, Pacific Island Countries face unique challenges of increasing variability in rainfall (leading to drought and flooding), rapid land use changes, increasing temperatures, and likely higher than average sea-level rise, all of which impact on freshwater security and on the resilience of WASH infrastructure. Add to this geographic and economic isolation, and limited human and physical resources, and the challenge of providing WASH services increases dramatically.

By exploring the state of water and sanitation coverage coupled with projected climatic variations, we add to the growing case design of resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems within a holistic whole of water cycle approach.