Combining Conservation and Wash
The Okavango River drops down from its headwaters in Angola and flows 1,100 kilometers through Namibia and Botswana, its waters rushing into a colossal expanse of wetlands called the Okavango Delta. This ecologically-rich region is home to buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, elephants, lions, cheetahs, hundreds of birds and plant varieties, and a diversity of indigenous communities. The futures of the people and the wildlife here are intertwined. They are threatened by drought and desertification, land degradation, population pressure, and stress on water resources.
USAID’s Southern African Regional Environment Program (SAREP) has stepped in to help with a new approach to development that couples biodiversity management with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) goals. SAREP is one of a smattering of development projects tackling environmental and health challenges simultaneously. These programs are based on the recognition that the health of ecosystems and the health of communities are interdependent. By integrating these two goals, it is possible to multiply impacts on both the environment and the people who derive their health and livelihood from it.
A New Wave
USAID is a pioneer of integrative approaches and has backed several projects that link WASH goals with forestry, agriculture, and natural resource management. This integration helps engage stakeholders and encourages them to participate. David Bonnardeaux, author of a new report from USAID and the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group titled, “Linking Biodiversity Conservation and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Experiences from sub-Saharan Africa,” said that combining WASH and environmental goals makes the results of conservation more concrete to stakeholders. “The health aspects of these programs provide measurable, tangible, and relatively immediate benefits to people,” he said.
Furthermore, targeting environmental and WASH goals simultaneously makes logistical sense. Tim Resch, bureau environmental advisor at the USAID Bureau for Africa said, “The primary benefit from combining water conservation goals with WASH objectives is that the people in Africa with the least access to water and sanitary services are living in the most remote rural and biologically rich areas, and so when we pay attention to our objectives in water and our objectives in biodiversity conservation, we find we are working in the same geographic area.”
But the most compelling reason for tackling environmental and health challenges together is that the two are inextricably linked. While it is common knowledge that polluted air, dirty water, and compromised ecosystems lead to more disease, it is less well known that the inverse is true as well: Unhealthy populations are actually more likely to mistreat their environment.
Field workers affiliated with the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center surveyed households in Tanzania to find out how poor health might affect environmental protection. The team found that, “those families with sick individuals are more likely to break environmental management rules and are more likely to poach inside the national park or more likely to dynamite fish,” said Elin Torell, a Coastal Resources Center coastal manager.
Rejuvenating Wetlands and Livelihoods
The SAREP team incorporates this integrated approach and began working in 2010 on four main objectives: Protecting biodiversity and ecological systems; increasing access to improved water and sanitation services; responding to global climate change; and supporting HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
Steve Horn, regional environmental program manager at the USAID/Southern Africa Botswana Field Office, said that combining these goals has been effective for the program. “With both biodiversity conservation and WASH funding, SAREP is better equipped to be responsive to addressing the very real livelihood concerns of local communities, but always in the context of improved biodiversity conservation and sustainability,” he said.
One way that SAREP has served these different goals is by encouraging community governance of river basin resources. Local leaders are adopting an approach that addresses their communities’ diverse health and livelihood needs through land use planning. "This planning approach has helped us to see how all the members of our community can find a place on our land where they can realize their collective dreams and aspirations," said Omphemetse Boitshwarelo, vice chair of the Tubu community’s Joint Management Committee.
Education has been key to SAREP’s success. Practitioners educate village volunteers in workshops about the connections between human actions and the degradation of natural resources, and engage the community in long-term plans to address conservation goals. These workshops emphasize the theme that when accessing water, “everyone is downstream.” Workshop participants are trained in water management planning, monitoring, and improved sanitation techniques. “The workshop messages spread by mouth from one neighbor to the next and are eventually accepted by the entire community, with some communities even teaching adjacent communities,” said Steve Johnson, chief of party of SAREP.
The workshops have resonated with residents of the Okavango Delta region. After attending a SAREP training workshop on the link between WASH and conservation, one villager, Marcus Kamburu of Mayana, Namibia said, “We learned that each one of us is responsible to ensure our water is kept pure and clean and that we should prevent pollution.”
Of Pumps and People
When appropriately implemented, the disparate goals of projects that combine conservation and WASH initiatives can actually reinforce one another. For example, USAID’s Rural Access to New Opportunities for Health and Water Resource Management (RANOn’ALA) project in Madagascar works simultaneously to increase access to safe, sustainable water and sanitation sources and to encourage better natural resource management.
The project provides water pumps to villagers while also conducting targeted training workshops that stress the relationship between natural resource management and health. One such workshop showed villagers how traditional agricultural practices can damage drinking water sources. By providing access to clean water throughout the villages in conjunction with the workshops, the project literally brings home the workshop’s lessons about the importance of natural resources.
So far, the two-pronged initiative has not only enhanced the health and livelihoods of villagers, but has made a tangible difference in the villagers’ behavior. Bikany Edmond, president of a vanilla planters community in the town of Mananara, said RANOn’ALA’s educational program has led villagers to farm more sustainably and respect their watersheds.
Sometimes, it is advantageous to combine WASH and conservation goals not because they reinforce each other, but because they actually pose limitations on one another. In these cases, project designers have to reconcile the conservation and wildlife needs of an area with the health demands of its residents.
This was the challenge faced by the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), a zone including at least 36 national parks in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, the Zambia, and Zimbabwe that is home to the largest elephant population in Africa as well as a number of other large mammals, 3,000 species of plants, and 600 species of birds. Several African governments established the area in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the German government, a number of NGOs, and USAID to promote conservation and increase livelihoods through ecotourism. The program aims to reestablish traditional wildlife corridors to expand habitats and reduce the impacts of over-concentrations of wildlife, particularly elephants. But it confronts a challenge in doing so: the water needs of the area’s inhabitants.
Communities occupying the corridors are reluctant to move because they depend on the water from the Okavango River and Delta. KAZA was forced to look for ways to concurrently accommodate the region’s conservation and water needs.
KAZA joined forces with SAREP to work with local communities to create access points for water that enable residents to relocate outside the proposed wildlife corridors. By accounting for both water and conservation concerns, they were able to come up with this viable solution that jeopardized neither the environment nor residents’ health.
While uniting conservation and WASH is clearly beneficial and is sometimes necessary, doing so is not easy. The sectors traditionally have separate funding and policies, so any effort to integrate them on a broader scale requires cooperation. This can be a significant setback, as it can entail separate proposals, staffs, and large scale coordination between WASH and conservation practitioners. Staff from each field must be taught the respective policies and best practices of each sector if these programs are to succeed. Nevertheless, one need only look to the intertwined fates of the majestic wildlife, the vibrant communities, and the brilliant ecosystem they both inhabit in the Okavango Delta region to see the value in building bridges to maintain this delicate balance.
Last updated: July 17, 2013