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The Role of Higher Education in Building Resilient WASH Infrastructure for Fragile Times

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

by Vivian Ogechi Nwadiaru

In a bid to contain and reduce the spread of the COVID-19, people in different corners of the world are being encouraged to practice good personal hygiene and self-isolate/social distancing. As health practitioners around the world rally and work tirelessly to understand this novel virus, good hand-washing practice is being emphasised as one of the critical preventive measures to stop the spread of this virus. Easy as this may seem, certain regions of the world lack access to the necessary infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Zero - CC0 - Africa, Togo. Approximately 40% of the global population lack basic hand-washing facilities at home.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 40% of the global population lack basic hand-washing facilities at home. About 1.6 billion people have limited facilities (soap or water), and 1.4 billion have none. In fact, nearly 75% of the population of Least Developed Countries lack hand-washing facilities with soap and water. Access to water, sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as WASH) has enormous health and socio-economic benefits. Diseases and time burdens associated with the shortage of WASH services prevent many adults from earning a living or maximising their potential professionally. This has negative implications including but not limited to stalling global economic activities, as proven by the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite the world being covered by 71% water, only 1% of this is accessible and available to sustain life on earth. The distribution of this resource is influenced by diverse climates and geographies. Some regions have more rainfall and natural water resources, while others require critical infrastructure to facilitate the supply, making it unevenly distributed across the globe. This uneven distribution of water resources is further exacerbated by the growing effects of climate change. This year’s World Water Day theme examines the relationship between water and climate change. Climate change makes it increasingly difficult to predict water availability in different regions. For example, data from NASA shows that Lake Chad in the last 50 years has shrunk to a tenth of its size. This freshwater lake which is a is a source of livelihood for a population of more than 30 million. The lake supports fishing, irrigation and economic activity in Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. Sadly, as the lake continues to shrink, the harder communities struggle and compete for access to the dwindling resource.

Photo courtesy of T.K. Naliaka. Despite the world being covered by 71% water, only 1% of this is accessible and available to sustain life on earth.

Developing Capacities for WASH

The role of higher education institutions and capacity building generally, in the water sector is a critical component in achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Especially SDG Goal 6: clean water and sanitation. While only a small fraction of the daily water consumption is spent on personal use, the bulk of the daily water consumption is on agriculture. This can be significantly reduced by improving irrigation technology and making conscientious choices. Through higher education, integrated values and technologies for maintaining water supply and treatment, community-based water management, and sanitation services can be set. According to UNU-INWEH, the percentage of universities offering programs in ‘water’ ranges from 40% in the USA and Europe to 1% in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an alarming number given the low access to WASH infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to bridging the skills gap, and raising the next generation of decision makers, higher education institutions are better positioned to educate mass media specialists and to provide connections to communities through interdisciplinary and cross-cultural water research.

Academic institutions, together with the private sector, are charged with the responsibility of developing capabilities for WASH challenges. Though education alone cannot solve the WASH challenge, delivering education in a way that it is experiential, with high quality information content targeting specific actors that hold the greatest potential for behaviour change, conservation, and sustainability can improve the global WASH capacities. One of the institutions in Africa that seeks to address this gap in expertise is the Pan African University Institute of Water and Energy Sciences based in Algeria. The institute offers a water program for both engineering and policy tracks, it seeks to develop African expertise and solutions for local problems. However, higher education can only thrive when collaborations and networks are built to offer faculty exchange and increase the quality of applied research outcomes.

“Water is essential for fighting diseases and pandemics, we all need to stay hydrated and wash our hands. The only way to achieve this, is with the necessary WASH infrastructure in place”.

Vivian OgechiNwadiaru is a Sustainability Researcher and Co-founder STEMJets

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