By: Hanna Hodel and Michael Frederikse

FADA N'GOURMA, BURKINA FASO - Access to water is a fundamental human right. While the amount and quality of water we consume may vary greatly between countries, it is impossible for us to live without it. For the average Burkinabè who uses on average 20 liters of water per day, water is as indispensable as for the average American citizen who consumes approximately twenty times that amount.

In Burkina Faso where the average annual rainfall amounts to a mere 400mm, water scarcity is a major problem. Ongoing climate change, along with population growth and urbanization aggravate this situation. Water scarcity isn’t new problem, however, and has been an issue for centuries in many countries other than Burkina. In fact, exploring water and water quality dates back to the early 18th century when Sir Francis Bacon and Antony Leeuwenhoek made key developments in bacterial and physical filtration methodologies. During this time, John Snow also successfully used chlorine to disinfect the London water supply, curbing the spread of cholera. And, in the early 1900s, epidemiologist William Soper demonstrated the use chlorinated lime could halt the spread of typhoid fever.

More recently, water has become a vital area of focus for the United Nations (UN). In 2010, the UN declared its recognition of "the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life." In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were unanimously adopted by all 193 UN member states. The agenda consists of 17 targets, most of which indirectly relate to water, as it is inherently a cross-cutting topic. SDG 6, however, directly refers to water and aims “to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

In the early days of international aid, water problems were seen as infrastructure problems, with success measured by looking at physical outputs (i.e. how many pumps have been installed?).  This perspective incentivized water actors to focus solely on adding new physical infrastructure. By only investing in new boreholes, pumps, wells and sanitary facilities however, the need for maintenance was disregarded. Other important components like monitoring, evaluation, water resource management and water quality were similarly overlooked. As a consequence, many of these water infrastructure projects fell into disrepair and were useless within a short time after their installment. Currently, it is estimated that over 50 000 water points are broken in rural Africa. That means that in some countries, as much as 50% of the installed water points are non-functional. Here in Burkina, over a quarter of all water points are non-functional.

Having recognized these deficiencies, the standard practices in the water sector have evolved. Today, water actors are increasingly focusing their attention on improving maintenance structures, ensuring water service reliability and quality, and the rehabilitation of existing water infrastructure. Advances in information and communication technology (ICT) as well have meant changes in the way we approach water problems. Data collection, processing, and visualization have become less costly and time consuming, making it possible to integrate this real-time information into decision making streams. 

Our work at Initiative: Eau contributes to advancements in the water and ICT sectors. Our H2Odata programs improve urban water infrastructure surveillance and maintenance capacity, promote water actor accountability and transparency, and enable water data use in emergency decision-making. We have launched a program in urban areas to better inform water decisions (; a system to strengthen development and aid accountability (; and a response pipeline for emergencies requiring water information (H2Odata.crisis). Through our research efforts, we are also contributing to the scientific literature on water and public health. Globally, our work promises to improve efficacy and safety of drinking water services through data-driven solutions.

The shift from water problems being seen as infrastructure problems towards being seen as service delivery problems also means that it has become more complex to measure the success of water projects. The utility and efficiency of a water project cannot be measured by simply looking at the quantity of installed water infrastructure. Instead, we must regularly ask questions regarding the consumer´s satisfaction, the reliability and affordability of the services, and the financial and environmental sustainability. In order to provide service accountability not solely to donors but more importantly to end users, monitoring integrity and assessment of the quality and sustainability of projects is crucial. In this context, working closely together with the local communities is indispensable.

The world changes every day. People change every day. Countries change, disasters manifest in new ways, and political battles dampen even the most important of initiatives. As we continue to deliver sustainable WASH solutions, it is also vital that we recognize these changes. The problems surrounding water, sanitation and hygiene are evolving. Our efforts evolve with them. 


Easterly, William (2008): Can the West save Africa? NBER Working Paper Series. National Bureau of Economic Research.

IRC (December, 2017): Share concerns on water integrity.

Schouten, Ton / Smits, Stef (2015): From Infrastructure to Services: Trends in monitoring sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

WHO, UNICEF (July 2017): WASH in the 2030 Agenda- new global indicators for drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.