Caleb Cord (PhDEnvEngr'22) is the first author on a new paper in Science of The Total Environment that looks at water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services in developing countries from the systems level.
The work is part of the recently completed $15 million Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) on campus that was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That overarching five-year project was run through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering. It coordinated the efforts of seven organizations in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia seeking to develop, test and document high-potential engagements with local WASH systems across multiple countries and contexts.
We asked Cord about the overall project, how his research in the paper fit into the larger discussion and where the work will go from here.
Question: You recently graduated with your PhD from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. How did you first get involved in the WASH and SWS research projects?
Answer: I joined the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) in August 2018, and it has been so rewarding to collaborate with many great minds around the world on it. Looking back, I am beyond thankful for the lessons (academic, professional, and personal) I learned. Now that the project has wrapped up and my PhD is finished, I will be starting a job with Tetra Tech ARD as a deputy project manager and staff associate on their international water, sanitation, and hygiene programs.
Q: Can you explain what the USAID SWS project is at a high level and how this paper fits into it?
A: After decades of focus on constructing new water and sanitation infrastructure in low-income areas, we now face an immense global challenge in providing sustainable services and ensuring this infrastructure remains functional. Under SWS, eight partners across four countries (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Cambodia) tested new ideas, approaches, and tools to build stronger systems for service delivery. When we talk about systems, we are referring to the actors and factors – institutional, social, environmental, technical, and financial elements – that influence service sustainability.
For example, one of our partners, Whave, is a rural water service provider in Uganda. Under Whave's approach, rural communities sign contracts and make regular, affordable payments in exchange for reliability assurance from Whave, who performs preventive maintenance and repair services on the hand pumps that communities use for water access. Building on over 12 months of my own fieldwork in Uganda and over three years of Whave's implementation, in this paper we examined 22 implementation cases from three districts to uncover the conditions that led to high levels of consumer contract retention. High levels of retention show there is consumer demand and that they are willing to pay for this service – an important indication of the social and financial sustainability of this system-strengthening approach.
Q: What are some real-world applications of this work?
A: Professional approaches to providing rural water services in low-income contexts are emerging and growing rapidly. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In the paper we provide targeted recommendations not only to service providers themselves, but also show that long-term success is going to rely on the efforts of many actors.
In the global WASH sector, we are continuing to move away from the voluntary, unsupported, unregulated, and underfunded arrangements of the past that have failed to improve sustainable services. As these important paradigm shifts take place, we need to build the body of evidence on what works and under what conditions. This study specifically sought to build evidence of the conditions needed for sustainable rural water service provision, and it is just one part of SWS's contributions to the global WASH sector as we shift our minds toward more sustainable service delivery.
Q: Was this a research question or area you were particularly interested in before joining the project?
A: Absolutely. I came to CU Boulder to connect with and be part of the thought-leading global engineering research that happens here. And since my background was in water supply systems, this line of work was a great fit.
That said, these specific problems and research questions emerged after I joined the project and learned more about the challenges facing the WASH sector today. I spent a lot of time working alongside our partners in Uganda and learning from their immense and dedicated efforts to build stronger systems for rural water services. This work stemmed directly from those interactions and would not have been possible if not for our close collaboration with the amazing minds behind Whave's work in the field and our other partners' work across SWS.
Q: What was it like working with professors Karl Linden and Amy Javernick-Will on this project?
A: They are the best advisors I could have asked for. They always pushed my work to be the best it could be and stood alongside me as I navigated some of the toughest situations I have ever been in, always providing the resources and room to grow. Managing SWS was no easy feat because there are so many partners with so many different interests, incentives, and ideas. In the end, the project – and my own success – has largely been a result of their dedication and personal investment in everything they do.