#Youth4WASH: cultivating the next generation of water, sanitation and hygiene leaders

6 min read
The panel at WaterAid's World Water Forum session 'Cultivating the next generation of water, sanitation and hygiene leaders'. From left to right: Marieme Soda Ndiaye (Senegal's youngest MP; speaking), Temple Oraeki (Water Youth Network and RWSN member [Nigeria]), Mariame Deme (WaterAid, moderator), Fatimata Sall and Kathryn Nwajiaku.
Image: WaterAid/Dan Jones

Young people will be affected by the water crisis more than any previous generation, and are disproportionately affected by poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Yet they are often excluded from conversations on WASH issues, and their ideas overlooked. Read how the WASH sector can ensure their voices are heard and ideas maximised, and sign our manifesto to show your support.

At the 9th World Water Forum in March, young leaders from around the world, united by WaterAid in a hybrid session, produced a manifesto to together forge a path for a more equal future for all – with water at its core. The #Youth4WASH manifesto (PDF) outlines actions the water and sanitation sector must take, for young people and for the planet, if we are to have a promising future. Why? Because conversations on water issues are often dominated by the water sector, water experts and specialised civil society organisations, excluding the voices of young people, whose lives these issues will affect most. The #Youth4WASH manifesto aims to change this.

Young people can change the trajectory of WASH progress

Our session 'Cultivating the next generation of young leaders for WASH' looked to raise the understanding of the next generation’s leaders, youth organisations and civil society organisations of the links between water and inequality, health and climate change, and build momentum for action, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our aim was to provide a platform for learning and sharing best practices in accountability, transparency and civic engagement from young leaders across different countries and regions. During the youth voices session, we heard young people sharing their ideas for solving the water crisis and what water means to them, and we heard them demand change for all.

As Aboubacar Lougue from Burkina Faso put it: "Some will say that water is life. For me water is more than life. Beyond life, water is the solution. It is the solution for the resilience of people in the face of major climatic challenges, it is the solution for alleviating the suffering of people, especially women, and its security guarantees a better life beyond life. To ensure that everyone has access to clean water, access and security must be a priority for all our development policies and programmes, and it must also be a priority for donors in their funding possibilities."

The session opened with a strong video statement from Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation:


The young panellists and participants acknowledged that young people are important actors in solving the water crisis. "It is young people who must be on the front line for achieving Goal 6 to ensure 100% water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) coverage by 2030. Young people need more space to speak and participate in decisions," said Dr Fatimata Sall, AYPWS (Association des Jeunes Professionnels de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement du Sénégal). 

The discussions showed young people have innovative and scalable solutions and ideas that are often overlooked. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the unequal and increasingly severe impacts of the climate crisis, intergenerational exchange and cooperation are more crucial than ever; bridging valuable experience and innovative ideas is key, driving creation of holistic solutions to WASH access. But young people continue to be under-represented in consultation and implementation processes around WASH projects.  

Young people are vital to solving the water crisis

This generation will be more affected by the water crisis than any before. Young people around the world – especially girls – are disproportionately affected by water-related challenges. This includes the burden of carrying water long distances – missing out on education as a result – and facing the impacts of climate change through floods, droughts and failed harvests.

The half of the global population that is younger than 30 years old is also increasingly vocal. They are forming more and more youth grassroots organisations to address local water issues. Young water and sanitation advocates make invaluable contributions as activists, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs in their communities.

Water is life, sanitation is dignity.

Marieme Soda Ndiaye, Senegalese MP

What are the barriers to young people contributing meaningfully to WASH action?

But it has not been easy for young people to find their place in spaces of influence and decision making – the water sector being no exception. Girls and young women face the greatest exclusion from participation and leadership, despite being the most affected by lack of water and sanitation services and having many solutions to offer.

Young people face barriers such as poor access to finance, support from organisations involved in the water sector, marginalisation from decision making and planning processes, limited access to policy-making opportunities, and poor access to education.

In our session we heard that young people starting out in the WASH sector often experience technocratic and professional development barriers. They may be included in conferences or decision-making processes, but only superficially, without having the chance to meaningfully contribute or influence outcomes. Those most affected by the water crisis must be able to have greater roles, through job opportunities (quality and qualifying jobs), strengthened youth entrepreneurship, and including young people in decision-making positions.

A view of the panellists and audience during WaterAid's session 'Cultivating the next generation of young leaders for WASH, at the World Water Forum, March 2022.
A view of the panellists and audience during WaterAid's session 'Cultivating the next generation of young leaders for WASH, at the World Water Forum, March 2022.
Image: WaterAid/Maisie-Rose Byrne

Same problem, new solutions

The session resulted in the development of a youth manifesto (PDF), in which young participants called on decision-makers, governments, non-governmental organisations and partners gathered at the 9th World Water Forum to:

  • Listen to the voices of youth, indigenous peoples, girls and young women, developing communities and other marginalised people who are most affected by the impacts of poor water accessibility, and support them to provide direction to decision makers.
  • Contribute to forging a new generation of world leaders with in-depth knowledge by strengthening the capacities of young people, with a focus on strengthening local knowledge and setting up platforms for intergenerational exchanges.
  • Provide young people with high-quality and skilled job opportunities, and economic stability so young people can explore their potential.
  • Ensure the engagement of young people over time, focusing on concrete initiatives and solutions to improve governance of the WASH sector, and building more responsibility and reciprocal relationships.

The young participants called for the WASH sector to have the same urgent and ambitious resource mobilisation we have seen around the world towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing climate change: "The world needs a unified movement for water," said Temple Oraeki, Water Youth Network and Rural Water Supply Network member from Nigeria.

We call on interested young people from across the world to sign this manifesto, and tell us by using the hashtag #Youth4WASH on social media what WaterAid could do to better support young water champions and youth involvement in the water sector. The more signatures we get, the more chance we have of making the voices of young people and their recommendations heard.

Kine Fatim Diop is WaterAid's Regional Advocacy Manager for West Africa. Follow @kinefatimdiop on Twitter.