A Call to Action: Proposing a University Network for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene



Water is the critical concern of countries around the world due to increasing population and environmental change. The Paul Simon Water for the World Act, passed in early 2010, aims to provide support and funding for the provision of safe water and sanitation. Universities are uniquely poised to address solutions and assessments of efforts to address water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). This paper outlines a “call to action” for universities to collectively address WASH issues by establishing a network that identifies experts, links resources, and builds partnerships.

This is a “Call to Action” to create a university network to collaborate and coordinate solutions, projects, and advocate for policies with special attention to WASH education, teaching, and technical capacity. This call to action has three main goals:

  • 1Design a framework to more effectively identify and target water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives globally;
  • 2Promote greater levels of interaction between institutions and people in higher education focused on water, sanitation, and hygiene; and
  • 3Increase the interactions between U.S. government agencies doing work in the WASH area and their counterparts in academia.


Water is at the nexus of critical issues of the 21st Century: Increasing population, deteriorating environments, and climate change. A specific aim of the Millennium Development Goals is “to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” (United Nations 2009). Drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives are needed to address the condition of the world's population where “1.1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water and more than 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation” (World Health Organization and UNICEF 2006). In response to these conditions, the U.S. Congress passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 (PL 109–121 2005) that “makes access to safe water and sanitation to developing countries a specific objective of the United States foreign assistance programs.” In 2009, the Paul Simon Water for the World Act was introduced and passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2010. The aim of this act is to further provide support and funding for the provision of safe water and sanitation. There appears to be a keen interest in water concerns as evidenced by Secretary Clinton's introductory comments in the 2009 Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act Report (U.S. Department of State 2009). Additionally, the United Nations launched a second International Decade for Water (2005–2015) to address safe drinking water and sanitation around the world.

The rationale for a network is the consensus that higher education can play a key role within the overall process of improving access to water. Universities host a cadre of experts to address WASH issues as health education and awareness, sanitation engineering, water resource assessments, and ecosystem services; however, “water” studies are fragmented throughout universities and have migrated to funding other directions (e.g. irrigation, policy initiatives, environmental assessments). The United States’ approach to water education as well as water administration mirrors the international approach to water: fragmented, multiple governing agencies managing narrow components (e.g. river protection, ground water monitoring, hydropower, flood control), competing ideologies for water management (e.g. neoliberal economic strategies, rights-based approaches to resource access, large-scale structural solutions) and confusing regulatory structures for legal water rights and water quality standards (Gerlak 2005). This initiative would help strengthen linkages across academic disciplines that are connected to WASH. Most notably, WASH needs to be elevated within the field of global health. WASH-related diseases are the leading causes of death, particularly among children, in the developing world. Yet WASH remains a low donor priority within the global health field.

The U.S. government, private companies, non-governmental organizations and charitable foundations are recognized for committing resources to address these challenges of WASH. However, when considered collectively, colleges and universities in the United States represent an enormous, underutilized resource for responding to the global WASH challenge. The academic community can advance progress in reaching international WASH goals through education, capacity building, service provision, technological innovation, and research in the development and maintenance of WASH interventions.

There are a host of university led research, educational, and outreach activities that are taking place around the globe, but no collective awareness or understanding of the overall breadth and depth of such activities or tracking of metrics of success for WASH projects. Additionally, there is no mechanism to link experts and activities to better leverage outcomes and resources for long term success. A network of these academic groups, working together on WASH in a more coordination fashion, would facilitate further philanthropic activities overseas, encourage additional technological innovation, and increase momentum of the WASH sector more generally. It would also allow for a clearinghouse of information and best practices that could be shared with counterparts outside of academia, particularly in the U.S. government. As pressures on U.S. civilian capacities increase and as demands grow overseas for foreign assistance in the WASH sector, U.S. college and university faculty, staff, and students can provide the much needed technical expertise, knowledge, and personnel in host countries to achieve the goals of U.S. WASH-related aid programs.

Many projects that utilize university expertise are conducted on a small scale, operate on “shoestring” budgets, and are facilitated by such groups as Engineers Without Borders, Peace Corps Master's International volunteers, and Rotary Club outreach activities. While these projects provide critical assistance to local communities, the overall impact remains unknown in terms of increasing access to water and sanitation. This “Call to Action” will assist in identifying such projects and the individuals who are involved. Further, funding for university-led WASH projects has not been extensive and is most often locked into the agency funding cycle and priorities.

A university WASH network would facilitate cross-fertilization between higher education institutions, non-governmental organizations and national and international governments. More cohesive and collaborative processes are of vital importance to a broad array of issues linked to WASH needs. While many of these activities are going on independently, this network would assist in the coordination and facilitation to do the following:

  • 1Implement practical, on-the-ground WASH projects involving faculty and students;
  • 2Partner with colleges and universities in developing countries on training programs and other ways in which to increase in-country capacity;
  • 3Train the next generation of WASH professionals in the U.S., with an emphasis on experiential learning;
  • 4Innovate and evaluate new WASH – related technologies;
  • 5Assist USAID and Department of State, including individual USAID missions, in researching and developing evidence-based water and sanitation strategies, and in analyzing and evaluating outcomes;
  • 6Promote awareness beyond public health and engineering programs of the national security, economic, gender equity, social and environmental benefits of addressing the water-sanitation crisis;
  • 7Develop public-private partnerships with corporations, civil society, philanthropy and faith communities; and,
  • 8Develop and promote K-12 education programs raising awareness and encouraging action.

These multiple issues underscore the need for concerted investment in the research and development of WASH – related activities across disciplinary sectors.

University Collaborative Activities

Key university water organizations are currently in place to facilitate the establishment of a university WASH network. These include but are not limited to:

  • • The Association of Schools of Public Health, the National Institutes for Water Resources (http://www.asph.org/),
  • • The Universities Council on Water Resources (http://www.ucowr.org/),
  • • American Water Resources Association (http://www.awra.org/),
  • • The National Ground Water Association (http://www.ngwa.org/), and
  • • Student organizations such as campus chapters of Engineers Without Borders.

Each of these organizations brings a particular focus and strength to a future Network as there is no single entity that only addresses the specific issues associated with WASH initiatives. The Association of Schools of Public Health recently documented the shortage of global health workers and the need for education and training to meet this demand (Association of Schools of Public Health 2009). The National Institutes for Water Resources addresses regional water issues and has access to current researchers in the water arena. The Universities Council on Water Resources consists of 90 universities and organizations throughout the world to facilitate water-related education and inform the public about decision-making and water resources. The American Water Resources Association advances multidisciplinary water resources education, management and research. The National Ground Water Association is comprised of U.S. and international ground water professionals to manage and protect the world's ground water. Each organization addresses individual components of WASH needs: health education, ground water management, interdisciplinary approaches, and technical expertise. However there is no coordinating entity to consider WASH issues holistically and strategically within the university landscape.

Facilitating the Network

To understand the current academic WASH landscape, a series of discussions took place between Water Advocates, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and academics involved in WASH from across the United States. The result was the implementation of a survey to determine in which countries WASH projects were taking place and which U.S. institutions were working on such projects. Funded by the Wallace Genetic Foundation and carried out by Emory University and Colorado State University, preliminary results from the survey reveal that water, sanitation, and hygiene projects are occurring throughout the world (Figure 1) and that WASH activities are focused on education, delivery of water services, and monitoring (Center for International and Strategic Studies 2010). From this survey, a baseline database of U.S. researchers and institutions involved in WASH projects was created that demonstrates where U.S. universities are conducting research internationally while identifying technical expertise nationally. The resultant report from the survey was presented at a Capitol Hill briefing in March 2010. Approximately 120 people attended the meeting including Congressional aides, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), State Department and USAID officials, and WASH academics. These activities have resulted in the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Strategy Institute to agree to provide the coordinating oversight for the University network; in part, to assure a “neutral venue” for the various institutions as well as a connection to the Washington policy community. The Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Strategy Institute has been working on water issues for a number of years and has become a well-known convener for international water professionals in Washington, serving as a link between Capitol Hill, the Executive Branch, NGOs, and the private sector. Global Strategy Institute also has strong relationships with colleges and universities through its Higher Education Initiative; thus Global Strategy Institute is perfectly positioned to merge these two project areas for a new WASH university initiative.

Figure 1.

Countries with WASH projects.

The University WASH Network

A University WASH network would:

  • 1Encourage inter- and trans-disciplinary activities,
  • 2Increase constructive broader impacts through collaboration,
  • 3Further educational opportunity through well-established networks, and
  • 4Foster local, regional, national and international partnerships to help realize the Millennium Development Goals.

The long term goal of such a network is to establish a stronger relationship between institutions of higher education that focus on research and U.S. State Department and USAID, whose focus is development in order to collaborate through technological innovation while supporting policy. The Consortium would utilize existing organizations, such as National Institutes for Water Resources, American Water Resources Association, Universities Council on Water Resources, and Association of Schools of Public Health and develop mechanisms for linkages, communication and information sharing to better target WASH priorities. The network will capitalize on the extensive foreign expertise at universities to discuss these priorities with lawmakers and Congressional representatives. As discussions and support for the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009 move forward, a network would act on behalf of universities to strategically situate itself to ensure an informed voice at the table. Additionally, a network can create a database that identifies “shovel-ready” projects with the aim to get “boots on the ground.”

A draft vision and mission statement is presented to solicit input and interest in a network.

Draft Vision Statement

This international network of universities, professional organizations, and societies seeks to promote efforts to establish and ensure sustainable sources of good quality water and sanitation for peoples around the world, to encourage and support education of water and sanitation professionals, and to advance research for stable and secure water supplies for people and ecosystems worldwide.

Draft Mission Statement

The network of universities and professional organizations for clean water and sanitation seeks to pursue, on a philanthropic and not-for-profit basis, efforts to:

  • 1Assist with water supply and sanitation development, maintenance, and enhancement projects at regional, national and international scales.
  • 2Conduct educational efforts and capacity building for clean water and sanitation.
  • 3Engage in cooperative research to advance clean water sustainability in the world. These organizations are uniquely suited to provide educational offerings and exchange with regard to water, establish cooperative research, and promote clean water development and sustenance from a professional point of view.
  • 4Seek and pursue new funding sources for clean water and sanitation for communities in need, particularly in poor and economically developing communities.
  • 5Develop partnerships to provide water related education for disadvantaged people and institutions (including instruction at the university and professional level), provide information on current and planned water and sanitation projects in different regions of the world, and help lead and coordinate educational, development, and research efforts.
  • 6Engage under graduate and graduate students in training and service opportunities to develop greater global awareness and understanding.

Next Steps

The U.S. government is at a critical juncture; lawmakers need to demonstrate results that have been made in meeting the Millennium Development goals as well as addressing the key issues of water in the 21st century. The deadline of 2015 is fast approaching. In an age where academia and science are often considered irrelevant (Cummings and Finkelstein 2009), we have an opportunity to demonstrate and create solutions to one of the seemingly intractable environmental issues — access to water and sanitation through collaborative research, education and outreach. The university community can act to draw attention to the important work that has already been accomplished, communicate the results and outcomes of current and past projects to identify lessons for future projects, and build networks for future activity.

Avenues for a university WASH network to demonstrate a leadership role include attendance at upcoming conferences during this next year. American Water Resources Association, National Ground Water Association and Universities Council on Water Resources are all hosting conferences in which a network can raise awareness on WASH activities, build communication networks to develop research teams, identify opportunities and facilitate discussion on long-term aims and goals. Workshops held at these conferences would target intersecting areas and topics to better situate university activities, build partnerships that focus on WASH projects, and engage in identifying how the university community can address the critical water issues of this century.

Elements of the Initiative

University faculty can get involved by working together to efficiently provide technical capacity for WASH projects abroad. The Consortium will seek to streamline opportunities by:

  • 1Developing a communication network between different Universities regarding WASH programs and activities. As a first step, filling out the above mentioned survey would help in discovering what is happening with WASH at universities (http://studentvoice.com/csu/WASH actpubunivFA09);
  • 2Establishing an organizing committee to bring interested university faculty and students together with U.S. and foreign agencies and implementing organizations;
  • 3Maintaining an on-going and current list of faculty expertise that can be matched to current funding and project opportunities appropriate for higher education. Catalogue the WASH -related activities that U.S. colleges and universities are undertaking in developing countries, including provision of WASH services, educational efforts and capacity building, and cooperative, evidence-based research to advance the WASH sector;
  • 4Facilitating faculty and student exchanges to offer training and education in WASH related tools and technology. Train the next generation of WASH professionals in U.S. universities and colleges through experiential learning, to meet the demand for WASH related skills from students and from future employers;
  • 5Exploring partnerships with foreign collaborators and universities. Identify developing countries and regions where multiple U.S. colleges and universities are implementing WASH projects, in order to identify potential synergies across projects and grow partnerships with host-country campuses; and
  • 6Producing a tool kit for universities, managers, administrators, faculty, and students designed to move from commitment to concrete action. The tool kit would include: implementation strategies for colleges and universities in teaching, research, operations and outreach; an inventory of available resources; and an inventory of best practices with a compilation of case studies. Synthesize lessons learned from college and university experts to generate policy recommendations on how to improve foreign assistance strategies in the WASH sector.

This “Call to Action” asks the water and health community at U.S. universities and colleges to come together to address an important area for human well-being. This is an opportunity for academia to demonstrate to the larger public our collective ability for concrete action by coordinating solutions, projects and policies that focus on WASH education, teaching, and technical capacity. This type of engagement will strengthen the role that educational institutions can play in future strategies for adaptation in a changing world. A key role of such institutions is educating the next generation of leaders by giving them the requisite skills to meet challenges and opportunities ahead. A university WASH consortium would assist in organizing collaboratively across disciplines and institutions to meet this challenge as well as creating ways to improve water access and sanitation for billions.

Author Bios and Contact Information

Melinda Laituri, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Colorado State University in the Forest, Rangeland, and Watershed Stewardship Department. She works with Native American tribes on water resource management strategies that utilize cultural and eco-physical data in research models. Other research work focuses on the role of the Internet and geospatial technologies of disaster management and cross-cultural environmental histories of river basin management. She can be reached at: Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship, 1472 Campus Delivery, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523–1472, melinda.laituri@colostate.edu.

Faith Sternlieb is a Research Associate at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University where she is working on initiating WASH activities in collaboration with water advocates from the academic, public and private sectors. She is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Colorado State University in Geosciences with a specialty in Watershed Sciences and Policy. The title of her dissertation is Mapping the Hydro-political Landscape for Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. She can be reached at: Colorado Water Institute, 1033 Campus Delivery, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523–1033, faith.sternlieb@colostate.edu.

Reagan Waskom, Ph.D. currently serves as the Director of the Colorado Water Institute and as Director of the Colorado State University Water Center. Dr. Waskom is a member of the Department of Soil & Crop Sciences faculty with a joint appointment to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University. He also serves as the Regional Director of the USDA-CSREES Integrated Water Program. He can be reached at: Colorado Water Institute, 1033 Campus Delivery, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523–1033, reagan.waskom@colostate.edu.