Rethinking innovation to deliver safe water, sanitation and hygiene for children

UNICEF Innovation Specialist Esther Shaylor shares her takeaways and thoughts on whether the world is progressing quickly enough to ensure safe water and sanitation for all.

Esther Shaylor, WASH Innovation Specialist at UNICEF Product Innovation Center
26 September 2023
Esther Shaylor, UNICEF Innovation Specialist

In the wake of the 2023 World Water Week conference, UNICEF Innovation Specialist for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Esther Shaylor, shares her five key takeaways along with her thoughts on whether or not the world is progressing swiftly enough on its journey toward Sustainable Development Goal 6 to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

1. When we work together, we are more likely to find solutions

Given the shared challenges many face, we need to understand each other’s views on innovation and scaling. We must include voices from local communities to truly understand their perspectives. During a session that I led on driving innovations to scale, our teams in Ghana and Laos shared that communities are eager to adopt innovative solutions for WASH, even if this involved learning to do things differently. This session showed that when we come together, exchange knowledge and understand the perspectives of everyone involved, we are better equipped to address the challenges of scaling innovations and driving more impactful action.

Two boys use a UNICEF- and USAID-supported tap
Two boys use a UNICEF- and USAID-supported tap in Ban Bok camp, Attapeu, Lao People's Democratic Republic.

2. Moving towards local solutions that benefit local communities

In a session focusing on humanitarian response which I hosted, WASH projects were pitched to experts in a competition format. This session demonstrated how WASH specialists around the world are looking for innovative and sustainable solutions to address local challenges. Two UNICEF projects that were presented were:

Faecal sludge and wastewater management
Behind a metal fence, Syrian children stand in front of a flooded area in refugee camp close to the Lebanese-Syrian border.

The local development of a solution for faecal sludge management for people in Lebanon who have been displaced from their homes. It is a great example of the WASH sector’s shift towards locally-produced and sustainable solutions.

Kits that Fit
Internally displaced adolescents carry boxes of hygiene kits

Kits that Fit, which shows that when we inform the design of emergency supplies kits based on feedback those who receive and use the kits, this helps ensure that the supplies we deliver are human-centered.

3. Everything takes time and commitment, but it is possible

As an innovation specialist, I recognize that the journey of bringing new water solutions to the market can be complex, and that it often requires a long time to turn new ideas into sustainable, value-driven solutions. On average, it takes 12 to 16 years for innovative water solutions to get out of the lab, into the market and achieve profitability. At UNICEF, we support developers to provide products that address the needs from the field. We focus on identifying opportunities where we can accelerate this process to reach scale and achieve widespread adoption and impact.

One session that provided a shining example of what commitment and time can achieve was presented by Bernard Koh of the Public Utilities Board of Singapore. It told the story about Singapore’s remarkable advancement in its water delivery systems over the past 60 years and how innovation has been at the heart of their journey. Even though most see Singapore as a modern place today, it didn’t start that way. Progress, be it in technology, policies, management practices or institutions, requires commitment.

Two girls collect clean water from a UNICEF-supported solar-powered tap
Zarghuna (9) and Wasima (8) in Badghis Province, Afghanistan, collect clean water from a UNICEF-supported solar-powered tap.

4. Youth need to be at the center of everything we do

Getting young minds involved early brings fresh ideas, encourages different approaches for doing things and pushes us to innovate in new ways. At the Young Professionals Debate, Te Huia Taylor, a member of the Maori Advisory Board of the New Zealand Drinking Water Regulator, particularly impressed me with her insights from indigenous communities. She stressed the importance of starting with indigenous knowledge systems, noting that they hold valuable solutions that are often overlooked as don’t they fit with Western thinking. Taylor and the other young professionals highlighted that innovation is not only about flashy products; it’s also about doing things differently.

Two boys stand by a UNICEF-supported water point
Two boys stand by a UNICEF-supported water point in Noorkhail village, Muqur District in Badghis Province, Afghanistan. UNICEF has installed a solar-powered water facility that brings safe drinking water to Noorkhail village - home to over 3,000 people.

5. My call to action

My vital call to action is this: listen to the voices of young people in the room. They may lack experience in years, but their ideas and solutions are equally valid. They hold the promise of propelling us closer to our shared goal: ensuring clean water and sanitation for every child.

A group of children wash their hands and faces at the UNICEF-supported water point
A group of children wash their hands and faces at the UNICEF-supported water point at the Omo Rate Health Centre in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia.

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