collaboration, community, homeless, international, sanitation, toilets, united nations

World Toilet Day recognized by UN: US network spreading word.

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Today – 19 November 2013 – is World Toilet Day. World Toilet Day is being officially recognized by the United Nations this year, and a host of organizations are simultaneously working on sanitation efforts worldwide.

Why is World Toilet Day important? Many people both in the United States and around the world have no safe places “to go.” Sanitation saves lives on a daily basis and in disaster situations, and those most oppressed encounter largest challenges around access. Statistics are stark. 2.5 billion people have no adequate sanitation. Preventable sanitation-related illnesses kill 1.5 million children each year. Around 1.7 million people in the US do not have indoor plumbing. Another 1.5 million people in the US live outside. This is a problem that affects many people in many places.

What is the history of World Toilet Day? The amazing Jack Sim, aka Mr. Toilet, started the World Toilet Organization 19 November 2001. He used the acronym WTO (think World Trade Organization) to raise awareness about the lack of sanitation globally. World Toilet Day was inaugurated the year after the anniversary of WTO founding. Starting in 2013, the UN designated 19 November World Toilet Day. Jack Sim is traveling to NYC for a myriad of celebratory events.

What can you do? What can you learn? Many admirable organizations are involved in sanitation. PHLUSH compiled a massive list of information and advocacy tools from many of them here. There are UNICEF posters and a Toilet Trek game, an interactive website by WASH United, and much more. Two US grassroots organizations – west-coast PHLUSH and east-coast The POOP Project – are also trying to raise awareness about US toilet issues. See ToiletsUSA : Why We Need to Speak Out on the PHLUSH website. Take The Pooper Pledge on The POOP Project website. Finally, if you are so inclined, you can follow #ToiletsUSA, #WorldToiletDay, #CelebrateTheToilet, #LiftTheLid, or #wecantwait on Twitter. May every day be World Toilet Day.

“A nation is judged by the compassion it shows its weakest citizens.” – Bruce Springsteen

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collaboration, community, development, general, homeless, international, ngo, participatory management, sanitation, united nations

Empowerment and Gender Equality in Water and Sanitation: What does it mean? What does it matter?

If you know of work done by non-profit or governmental organizations globally, you have likely heard the words –  empowerment and gender equality. Groups worldwide use these terms in apparent pursuit of more equitable water and sanitation projects ranging from entrepreneurship to provision. When first exposed to these terms during my master’s studies in 2010, I became intrigued with understanding how empowerment and gender equality related to more participatory water and sanitation projects. Yet after conducting research for my master’s project [Empowerment and Gender Equality for Water and Sanitation in Rural India: Two Case Studies], it became clear these terms were used by organizations very differently. While some organizations might imply a borewell for water results in empowerment, others said participating on a decision-making committee results in empowerment (and so on).

Amidst this array of disparate definitions, it appeared to me such terms still might have some capacity to be somewhat useful conceptual approaches for more equitable water and sanitation projects. So when I received the opportunity this past summer to attend two different workshops focusing on empowerment and gender equality, I took the chance. In July, I attended a United Nations program in Geneva to see how different UN entities employed (or failed to) these concepts. In August, I traveled to UCLA for another workshop focusing on empowerment in public health.

After attending the UN Graduate Study Program, I began to wonder if there might be better discourse for equitable water and sanitation projects globally. Study program participants heard over twenty seminars from UN agencies – International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, Inter-Parliamentary Union, UN High Commission for Refugees, UN Human Rights Council, Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Office at Geneva, UN Secretary General Envoy on Youth, UNAIDS, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNFPA, and UNICEF. Many of these organizations talked about how they focus on women internally and externally, but it was often difficult for them to describe how they incorporated a true gendered-approach into their practices (e.g. focusing on power differentials between all people not just looking only at women). It appeared some of them were stuck in a paradigm of second-wave feminism when more transnational feminist approaches are now critical. What this means in basic terms is that most UN agencies use a “universal woman” approach (i.e. a “western woman” approach) instead of looking at larger nation-state and economic structural disparities.

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Above Photo: Author of blog post is located in left front row in white short-sleeve button-down. UN Photographer.

Studying at the UCLA Global Health and Empowerment workshop provided a chance to dig more into the theory behind empowerment in various disciplines. We read everything from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Naila Kabeer’s Resources, Agency, and Achievements, and Jane Parpart’s Lessons from the Field. See entire syllabus here. This course covered a variety of critical and conservative empowerment theories in global health and global development (that word again) literature. My final grant-proposal project focused on sanitation and health issues in the US for two reasons: 1) the global north/global south binary is highly disconcerting to me, and 2) we have dire sanitation needs here that also demand attention. One of those sanitation needs is sanitation with/for those living outside in many cities in this wealthy nation. My proposal “Together for WASH: Pilot Program for Participatory and Gender-Sensitive Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene with Unhoused People in the United States” is currently undergoing final review. Here’s a sneak peek:

The long-term goal of this proposal is to improve measurable public health outcomes linked to WASH among unhoused people (men, women, and children) living in group camps furthering their upward social mobility and capacity to participate in social change. The objective of this proposal is to pilot low-cost and scalable WASH solutions coupled with participatory WASH programs in two group camps in two US cities. This pilot program is gender-sensitive using gender-specific solutions (e.g. eco-urinals and a menstrual hygiene management program) and gender-sensitive participatory techniques (e.g. community dialogue about gender burdens of WASH and representative participation). This pilot program uses an arts-based approach to give unhoused people a venue to highlight vulnerability in water and sanitation while communicating with policymakers to influence greater social change. This pilot program will lead to engagement in both individual and collective processes of empowerment resulting in critical consciousness among unhoused people in the realm of WASH.

So the jury is still out on water and sanitation development sector usage of terms like empowerment and gender equality.  It is not that empowerment and gender equality approaches are incompatible with true participatory water and sanitation programs. It is just that: 1) empowerment water and sanitation projects should be bottom-up instead of the top-down, 2) empowerment and gender equality definitions should be clearly outlined prior to development of water and sanitation programs, 3) larger structural frameworks and power structures have to be taken into account (e.g. examining how someone can experience empowerment on a local scale while being disempowered on the global economic scale), 4)  it is critical to consider scale when thinking about empowerment and gender equality in water and sanitation, 5) empowerment as part of international-development discourse might actually reinforce oppressions, and 6) alternative conceptual approaches for examining and participating in equitable water and sanitation programs could include liberatory or autonomous frameworks.

Author’s Postscript: If you would like to read more about empowerment theories from multiple disciplines, please check out this shared Google Drive list put together by colleagues and myself.

collaboration, community, gender, sanitation, toilets

Open letter in support of all-gender restroom demand by UC Student-Worker Union

[Forgive my dearth of  Water for the Ages posts. I have been studying water and sanitation issues in a sociology program at University of California Santa Cruz. I am a teaching assistant and taking courses there. Our current student worker contract expired November 2013. One of our demands – besides calling for a living-wage, etc. – is all-gender restrooms. Below is my public letter in support of that demand. If you also support this demand, please visit this online petition.]

This letter is in support of the all-gender restroom demand by the UC Student-Worker Union. At least one all-gender and wheelchair accessible restroom should be installed in each UC campus building. This is a human right. This is a worker’s right.

I am second-year graduate student enrolled in the sociology program at UC Santa Cruz. I am also a Teaching Assistant for a sociology course here. I started focusing on global water and sanitation issues around five years ago in both work and research, and safe access to toilets and hygiene is a demand people around the world take seriously. Given the recent recognition of water and sanitation as a human right by the UN and also by the state of California, to say nothing of the obvious benefit to various users, this is a demand the University of California should take also seriously.

Did you know that California was the first state in the nation to designate water (for “sanitary purposes“) a human right? Governor Brown signed the historic bill in September 2012. He made this move after the ground-breaking UN resolution for an international human right to water and sanitation in July 2010. In fact, this year the UN is officially dedicating November 19th as World Toilet Day? They said “This new annual observance will go a long way toward raising awareness about the need for all human beings to have access to sanitation.”

Sanitation is a question of basic dignity for people in the Global South and in the Global North. And we (UC students, faculty, staff, and visitors) are not exempt. The average adult urinates up to eight times a day and defecates up to three times a day. Still not all people in the UC system have equal access to restrooms. Families with small children, those with disabilities, caretakers of the elderly, and LGBTQ individuals often walk by restrooms thinking “is it safe to enter?”

LGBTQ individuals are especially burdened with possible harassment and bullying in gender-segregated restrooms. A 2001 San Francisco Human Rights Commission survey found “41% of transgender respondents reported direct harassment or physical violence in gender-limited public bathrooms.” The Transgender Law Center states “many transgender and non-transgender people have no safe places to go to the bathroom – get harassed, beaten, and arrested in both women’s and men’s rooms.”

Workers on campus are doubly impacted. With limited time constraints, they might not be able to leave their building to find an all-gender restroom before their section starts or during class breaks.

The UC system should follow the lead of other places providing these essential sanitation rights across North America. Portland, Oregon adopted public restroom design principles calling for all-gender and single-user facilities in public spaces when designing the Portland Loo. All-gender and single-user restrooms designed by an American Restroom Association president won awards in La Jolla, California. The University of Alberta recently converted all single-user restrooms to all-gender restrooms. Penn State University converted 80 single-user restrooms to all-gender restrooms. The majority of restrooms at New College of Florida (Sarasota Campus) are all-gender facilities. These are just a few of the many success stories.

In summary, the UC system is especially well-poised to ensure these critical sanitation rights are met for all workers (and all people) on campuses statewide per Governor Brown’s recent legislation requiring water for “sanitary purposes” for all people and the international recognition of sanitation as a human right. Workers with small children, those with disabilities, caretakers of the elderly, and LGBTQ individuals deserve a working environment that meets their sanitation needs. A minimum of one all-gender and wheelchair accessible restroom in each UC campus building is a both a human right and a worker’s right. I ask that you honor these rights during UAW 2865 bargaining agreements.

collaboration, community, ngo, participatory management, united nations

Does The Human Right to Water and Sanitation = Water and Sanitation Justice?

Has anyone ever asked you “What do you do?” An interesting philosophical question for sure, but one of my condensed answers often is “I work for water justice and sanitation justice.” This means I want to participate in a more just water and sanitation world on individual, community, and political scales. In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council officially adopted The Human Right to Water and Sanitation resolutions. These resolutions represented the emergence of an international legal framework to recognize water and sanitation (WatSan) as a human right through availability, quality, acceptability, accessibility, and affordability. In my mind, this consecrated right was also a potential catalyst for a more just WatSan world. But I had never stepped back to ponder why the right to WatSan might seem equivalent to WatSan justice until I read an insightful paper called Forests, development, and the globalisation of justice by Forsyth and Sikor. Their paper provides a background on the historical connection of rights and justice concepts and challenges readers to evaluate universal notions of such.

Here’s a quick history on the right to WatSan as documented on the great The Rights to Water and Sanitation website. In 1948, close to 50 states agreed in the UN General Assembly to sign a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which identified about 30 rights: the right to education, the right to a standard of living for adequate health, and so forth. This Declaration led to multi-national treaties, national constitutions, and national laws. In 1966, two legally binding treaties identified a right to life and right to health which inferred WatSan were necessary to human life. In 2002, a UN committee issued a comment on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights saying “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Finally, Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque was appointed in 2008 to work with civil society organizations and states to identify best practices for WatSan, clarify the legality of WatSan human rights, and make recommendations towards MDG 7C. It was likely her work, along with a proposal from Bolivia, that forwarded the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 in July 2010 “calling on states and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation.” There were 122 states voting for the resolution, 0 against, and 41 abstentions (including the United States). The UN Human Rights Council passed an updated resolution the next year. But will this universal human right to WatSan lead to a more just WatSan world?

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Above Photo: Urban Semillas.

Forsyth and Sikor offer a case study of UN REDD – a global mechanism that provides rewards to countries whose forestry practices augment global carbon stocks. They describe efforts within this program to incorporate a traditional view of justice distributing benefits fairly and recognizing all stakeholders. The authors argue this type of justice does “carry embedded notions of value, knowledge, property, access, and governance that need to be interrogated more fully.” They describe how this traditional definition of justice related to fairness in allocation and equality of opportunity arose from John Rawls. In their case study – even amidst discussions by multi-lateral organizations, states, and NGOs – certain forest users’ concerns about justice were not allowed to enter the conversation. Interestingly, Forsyth and Sikor highlight that a Rawlsian view of justice relies upon distributions of property rights, and they identify three problems with linking rights to justice: 1) difficult decisions about types rights to be granted in pursuit of just distributions, 2) universal definitions including some people and excluding others, and 3) property rights may still result in unjust distributions. They conclude: “there is an urgent need, therefore, to make the historical context of property rights and their relationships to justice transparent.”

Let us take these three problems of linking rights to justice to begin to probe into The Human Right to Water and Sanitation process. First, difficult decisions must be made about types of rights to be granted to ensure just distributions. Some aspects of WatSan resources (providing sustenance to humans and animals, filtering pollutants, sustaining plant life, etc.) might seem likely to take precedence. But the key question really is what actors decided which WatSan rights were defined in the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Organization resolutions? Second, universal definitions can result in “dispossession and exclusion” of rights for some people. WatSan rights, like forest rights, are not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, think about varying levels of water purity in different locations, varying amounts of water at certain times of the year, different cultural uses of water, etc. Were these types of concerns incorporated into the 2011 Compilation of good practices for WatSan human rights? And how are these good practices adapted by region? Third, it is important to understand the process of distribution for property rights. WatSan rights are not always considered property, and they are not distributed on a global scale. WatSan rights are typically distributed on national and regional (or even watershed) scales. It could be valuable to decipher the scale of WatSan distributions in various locations to see what actors benefit from such distributions. As my Science and Justice professor recently said, he thinks Forsyth and Sikor call for participation of a different kind: to ask what is water and for who; to ask what is justice and for who; and to finally move into talk about WatSan rights based on those previous conversations. The authors themselves also say that Amartya Sen’s view of justice might be more helpful because it questions “what is being allocated and whose values and agendas are represented.”

collaboration, community, united states

Communicating water science to policymakers: are we missing the point?

A recent article from The Guardian Higher Education Network blog entitled “How academics can engage with policy: 10 tips for a better conversation” provided ideas to help scholars better convey research to policymakers. It explained appropriate times for sharing academic information, how to communicate with policy officials, and how to create relationships with policymakers. This article exemplifies the dominant science and policy discourse of the day – scientists have a hard time communicating their research to policymakers who need this information to make important decisions. At least this was the prevailing conversation while I was completing my master’s degree in Water Resources Policy and Management in 2010. During that time, we learned how to write policy briefs and white papers to convey scientific information to appointed representatives, and we were trained in multidisciplinary collaboration. Being graduate students interested in water, these goals seemed natural as policymakers managed water resources and water had no physical or disciplinary boundaries. But were we as budding water managers and scientists missing the point?

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Above Photo: United States Government Work on flickr

Recent scholarship from a new field of studies called Science, Technology, and Society (sometimes called Science and Technology Studies or STS for short) might claim we were. STS scholars advanced a concept called co-production with various definitions revolving around how science and technology knowledge are co-produced in a societal setting. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard described, as stated by Eva Lövbrand in “Pure Science or Policy Involvement“, co-production as “a dynamic process by which science and society continually shape, constitute, and validate one another”. Mike Hulme further delineated Jasanoff’s perspective in “What Sorts of Knowledge for what sort of politics?” saying she would argue for “deliberation and participation across all relevant questions”. Charis Thompson from UC Berkeley said co-production processes for science and technology knowledge creation in society occur through “developments around representation, identity, discourse, and institutions”.

So what does this mean for the lay person trying to understand the creation of water science knowledge in society? It means there is always societal influence on knowledge rooted in science and policy. Or in simpler terms, science is never fully insulated from policy. And societal influence can be varied depending on the type of science conducted. Lövbrand defined science as falling under three categories: basic science subjected to peer review, applied science to meet the needs of industry or government, and regulatory science with the primary audience of the government. Of course, boundaries between these science types are often blurred. But even the most pure form of basic science challenged to rigorous peer review processes can be driven by funding from a governmental entity or by prominent ideas of a certain time, and regulatory science – becoming more common in the 21st century as states are required to engage in risk analysis – requires scientists and politicians to rely on values and high levels of uncertainty.

And while these truths about science and policy seem self-evident, the prominent discourse of the day is still that science is conducted objectively with little societal influence, and it is the responsibility of objective scientists to better communicate their results to policymakers. As stated by some STS scholars like Mike Hulme, it seems the right questions for scientists, policymakers, and society should be the following. How is science knowledge created and whose knowledge is being represented? Are we valuing science knowledge that society wants to value or are we valuing information that a small subset thinks is valuable? Lövbrand tells us co-production gives us tools to answer these questions by creating a space to review “science and policy, facts and values, knowledge and power”. But the challenge, as Jasanoff might say, is re-articulating the societal framework for decision-making. She states: “With science more and more being produced in the service of social ends, the possibility of bias is far more evident, and the grounds of expert authority in greater need of re-articulation”. Here she is talking about challenging or re-forming the roles of science, experts, and committees in formal democracies. Water managers and scientists might question how this insight be applied to water science and policy-making endeavors. For many decision-making processes already use multiple-stakeholder input to come up with management plans (e.g. the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California.) But even these collaborative scenarios are focused more on decision-making and less on collaborative creation of science. Perhaps it is time to step back from the discourse calling for scientists to better inform policy-makers about their work, realize that science already represents varying values in society, and ask whose values are represented.