No, disability-inclusive water is an individual and institutional challenge

Disability-inclusive water team in Zambia (SNV Zambia)

In Mbala, Zambia, 8% of the population rely on open wells for their water. The use of shallow wells is prevalent due to limited connections to the water utility network. Whilst these challenges affect everybody, impacts are greater for women and children, and are most severe for people with disabilities.

In this article, we suggest that a combination of strengthening community participation and increasing institutional focus leads to incremental developmental improvements for people with disabilities: as water and sanitation users and water and sanitation decision makers. This combined method was applied in the WASH SDG programme which found a 13% increase in access to sanitation among people with disabilities (71% at baseline to 84%) during the programme's mid-term evaluation.

Living with a disability

In her testimonial, Mbala resident Gillian Nakombe explains the daily struggles she would face in accessing water for her day-to-day needs. In Zambia, traditional myths dictate that people with disabilities are in retribution for the sins of their parents. Unsurprisingly, the exclusion of people with disabilities in private and public life is normalised at all levels.

Because people with disabilities make up the ‘minority,’ their needs, at best, come last. The high level of exclusion of people with disabilities from community and local authority meetings renders their needs invisible when deciding upon WASH investment and management. It is often the case that they are not invited, or they encounter logistical challenges in reaching meeting venues. When in attendance, their numbers are ‘too insignificant’ that their specific needs are hardly considered.

Redressing exclusion through community leadership

Through the Chambeshi Lukanga Sanitation project supported by the Dutch Government-funded WASH SDG programme, SNV has been identifying, mobilising, and strengthening the capacities of socially excluded groups to participate in sanitation planning and other relevant decision-making processes at community and municipal level. Part of the programme’s work in communities is supporting groups in designing campaigns to demand for better and more inclusive sanitation facilities.

Disability-inclusive water team in Zambia (SNV Zambia)

Complete banner photo of disability-inclusive water stakeholders

Disability-inclusive water workshop (SNV Zambia)

Disability-inclusive water workshop

Redressing exclusion through systemic change

But an individual can only do so much. Individuals must find themselves in an environment that nurtures their development and enables them to access their human rights. Individual resilience is insufficient and not long-lasting.

To respond to systemic challenges, SNV is increasing the awareness of local authorities and water utilities on the challenges faced by the Mbala population, specifically people with disabilities by:

  • assisting decision makers and investors in devising solutions to ensure safe and dignified access for all;

  • providing consistent guidance on universal design principles in the construction and management of public WASH facilities;

  • encouraging the District Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Education (DWASHE) to engage and partner with representatives of people with disabilities and other socially excluded groups in all meetings so that they become part of the policy planning, decision making, and implementation of WASH activities in their respective towns; and

  • advocating for increased budget allocations in the municipal plan and pro-poor strategies.

As understanding around people with disabilities’ specific needs broaden, we expect significant transformations in Zambian society as these relate to inclusive development.

Author: Mwangala Mulundano, Behaviour Change and Communication Advisor, WASH SDG programme in Zambia. For questions or more information, contact Mwangala by email.
Photos by SNV in Zambia
More information:
[1] This article was written as part of the six-year WASH SDG Programme that works on improving access to, and use of, safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene in seven countries in Africa and Asia. The collaboration consists of SNV, WASH Alliance International and Plan International, and is financed by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within the programme, special attention is given to gender and social inclusion, climate vulnerability, and resilience. We work with local partners to achieve sustainable change.
[2] Disability inclusion is a key part of SNV's development approaches. In partnership with CBM, for example, rich material on disability inclusion in water and sanitation is available in rural Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Nepal. Contact Gabrielle Halcrow by email for more information.