4 ways to change the world of water, sanitation and hygiene

December 27, 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Life is different for three out of 10 people worldwide, or 2.1 billion people, who do not have clean, safe water in their homes. One quarter of the world’s population does not have access to decent toilets. In cities alone, over 80 million people practice open defecation.

Do you ever think twice about the water you drink from the glass neatly set on your table? How about your bathroom which you run to in the middle of the night? And the soap that sits beside the sink for you to wash your hands?

A glass of water, a bathroom beside your room, and a soap – essentials that define our lives without us really thinking about it.

Life is different for three out of 10 people worldwide, or 2.1 billion people, who do not have clean, safe water in their homes. One quarter of the world’s population does not have access to decent toilets. In cities alone, over 80 million people practice open defecation.

The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector in Bangladesh has been working for decades to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene across the country. During this time, it has experienced both significant setbacks and remarkable progress.

For example, the tube well was touted as a reliable source of safe drinking water until the late 1970s, when it was discovered that the design did not prevent arsenic contamination. The rate of open defecation in the country has almost been reduced to zero thanks to the concerted efforts of stakeholders. However, more than half of the latrines in Bangladesh have been found to be unhygienic.

Here are our top four insights:

1. Tackling the problem head-on
One of the simplest and most cost-effective solutions to staying healthy is proper hand washing. Research studies demonstrate that hand washing interventions reduce the risk of acute respiratory infection in children aged under 5 years by half, and the risk of diarrhoea by 42-47%. Despite understanding the mechanics of washing hands with soap during key times of day, most people forget to consistently practice this behaviour.

BRAC and UNICEF ROSA came together to come up with solutions to improve basic hygiene practices at the last mile by organising the WASH Innovation Challenge, betting on young minds across South Asia to put forth creative ideas.

Nearly 800 ideas were submitted, and the 12 finalists pitched diverse solutions, from apps to wearable devices, sophisticated monitoring systems to streamlined calendars.

2. Leveraging the private sector’s support

The private sector has made significant contributions when it comes to creating life-saving WASH products and delivering them to last-mile clients. Take the example of UNILEVER’s different hygiene products that have saved millions of people from water-borne diseases. It is no surprise that private sectors have a clear interest of business in this space. As part of their promotional campaign, they run hand washing campaigns in schools to promote hand washing; and the sales of their products work as an effective indicator to track the progress of people’s hygiene practices.

Private sector players are already actively looking to young entrepreneurs for the next wave of products and services. To promote disruptive solutions in the WASH space, UNILEVER and DFID joined hands to design a programme called Transform, which has earmarked more than USD 50 million to support young entrepreneurs in the WASH space. So far, five grantees from Bangladesh have received funding to scale up their existing projects.

3. Inspiring the next generation of WASHpreneurs

Young entrepreneurs nowadays are coming up with innovative market-based solutions to complex social problems in the WASH space. Take the example of Bhumijo, a spin-off from BRAC’s Urban Innovation Challenge.

Bhumijo spotted an untapped business opportunity to renovate existing toilets in public space into exclusive women-only facilities. The founders are currently working with city corporations and private sector partners to provide design, construction and maintenance support to mainstream quality service in public toilets.

4. Forging multi-stakeholder alliances

BRAC and UNICEF coming together to support young innovators (WASH Innovation Challenge 2018)

Having the right platform is the key. If young innovators can receive support in business development from established incubators like BRAC Social Innovation Lab; branding and distribution from the private sector from an organisation like UNILEVER; funding from international donors, and mentorship from the founders of successful social enterprises like Bhumijo, Drinkwell, more and more young people will enter this space.

Media will need to play a strong advocacy role by highlighting the work of young entrepreneurs,, providing them with traction and inspiring the next generation of WASHpreneurs.

Lastly, waste management and salinity intrusion are two of the most pressing issues in Bangladesh’s WASH space right now and they require innovative interventions. All relevant stakeholders should come forward with their expertise to throw their support behind young innovators to find and implement breakthrough solutions in this WASH space- no matter how complex the problem is.


Salman Sabbab is deputy manager and Zarif Enam is assistant manager of BRAC’s social innovation lab.

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