Is universal access still possible?

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Behailu Shiferaw

With a more intentional and dynamic approach, we can enable many other Sustainable Development Goals, says Bethlehem Mengistu. 

Call me a dreamer, but I believe that access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for everyone, everywhere in Ethiopia is possible in our lifetime. 

What is needed is a more intentional and dynamic approach to delivering universal access. Such an approach, in my opinion, should start with unpacking the ‘one’ in ‘everyone’ rather than relying on the assumption that if services are intended for ‘all’ then ‘no one’ will be left behind. 

This is especially important for the delivery of WASH services for two reasons. First, because the ‘one’ is extremely important when we try to address such deeply personal issues as hygiene, dignity and privacy. Second, because the realisation of the WASH target is essential for the achievement of most, if not all, other Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, including eradication of poverty and hunger, and advancing health, education and gender equality. That is why we, in the sector, say that WASH is not only a development target unto itself, but also, and more importantly, an enabler of most other SDG targets. That is why we urge development financiers to use their good business sense and prioritise their investment in an area that will have a ripple effect on many other targets. 

Universal access needs a next-level effort

Ethiopia is one of the few countries in Africa that have achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets for water supply. We must not forget to celebrate that. Now the Government of Ethiopia has, through its Growth and Transformation Plan II, GTP II, set goals for even higher standards of universal access to WASH, despite having not fully achieved the sanitation and hygiene MDG targets. Aiming high and pushing upwards is always better than a conservative approach in the path to success. 

This is commendable as it not only shows courageous leadership from the Government of Ethiopia but also deep commitment to correcting the tragedy that so many people still live without such basic services as water, sanitation and hygiene.

We must also recognise that achieving universal access is no small task and demands effective collaboration of all sector actors now more than ever.

But while all of that is encouraging, we must also recognise that achieving universal access is no small task and demands effective collaboration of all sector actors now more than ever. 

WaterAid used United Nations data to predict when each country will achieve universal access of basic provision. At current rates of progress, a significant number of people in 80 countries will still be drinking dirty water in 2030. 

That is why we need a shift. We need a shift from the current business-as-usual delivery of WASH investment to a more pragmatic approach that also looks to address the complex special needs of people, and to measure success and results differently. 

100% coverage and universal access are not one and the same.

  • 100% coverage means everyone has a water point somewhere around where they live, work or study. Universal access means everyone actually uses safe water every time they feels like doing so, with relative ease, wherever they are. 
  • 100% coverage means everyone has been taught the principles of good hygiene and is able to recite them. Universal access means everyone practises good hygiene behaviours all the time, and has the facilities and services to help them do so. 
  • Universal access no longer relies on percentages; it means that NO ONE individual is left behind. It means no woman, child, older person, remote district that everyone knows exists but no one cares to go to, urban poor community, or menstruating girl is left behind. This is the height of our ambition!

So is universal access still possible? 

Yes!!! But good intentions and political will are not enough to get us there. Given the fact that 2030 is a mere 12 years away we need to see a step change in investment action from both investors and implementers of WASH services. The drive for just quantitative results does not take into account qualitative considerations that are shaped and informed by what people at local level need. And, after all, not everything that counts can be can be counted. 

Yet, we, development leaders, are constantly pestered to put a number to the changes we effect in society every single day – the smiles we put on a child’s face when they wash their face with clean water for the first time; the dignity we restore to people when we build them private toilets in refugee camps; the sense of fulfilment community leaders get as they organise themselves in committees and collaborate with us to effect change in their localities. How are we to enumerate those impacts while still being genuine? Each ‘one’ person is different and, thus, may have different needs and respond differently to our different interventions. Our monitoring and evaluation methods need to consider the fulfilment of everyone’s needs when they measure success.

How can we include everyone? 

Check out WaterAid Ethiopia’s ‘Count Me In! Inclusive WASH in Ethiopia’ module, which recognises that, although we are all different, we are all part of the same society. This is why we chose ‘Count Me In’ as the module title – ‘me’ could be me, you, your relative, friend, neighbour, or anyone. Me could need ramps to access the toilets. Me could be a child that can’t reach high-placed faucets. That ‘me’ could always benefit from inclusive WASH. And we are hoping that the module will help enable the move from the rhetoric of inclusive service provision to seeing inclusive WASH services actually become sensible and sustainable. 

The module is intended to equip WASH practitioners, donors and like-minded organisations working towards realising the SDGs to:

  • Identify people who are likely to be excluded from WASH services. 
  • Describe the barriers to inclusive WASH.
  • Design and implement suitable technologies and service provision to ensure all members of society are served.
  • Actively engage in methods and tools that promote inclusive WASH services.

We hope you find it useful and would love to hear thoughts on it. 

Bethlehem Mengistu is Country Director of WaterAid Ethiopia. She tweets as @BethlehemMengis


  • WaterAid has been operating in Ethiopia for more than 30 years. In our last strategic period (2011–16) alone we reached 1.4 million people with WASH via partnership with local NGOs and government. We are currently operating in four regions, intending to impact on universal access in partnership with Government. 
  • Count me In! Inclusive WASH in Ethiopia was developed by Ethiopian WASH experts from the National WASH Coordination Office at our Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Co-Wash, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Ministry of Education, World Vision and UNICEF in collaboration with Open University.