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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.