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WASH expert Juliet Willetts on a decade’s worth of progress

After more than a decade of research and advocacy in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, Professor Juliet Willetts remains optimistic progress is being made.

Willetts, who is the Research Director for International Development at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), studied chemical and environmental engineering before doing voluntary aid work in India.

She started at the ISF in 2002 and, over 16 years, has led more than 70 projects in 15 countries. She was recently named one of the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence for her contributions to WASH and gender equality.

Willetts said the work is meaningful to her as access to water and sanitation are such basic human rights.

“Water is an interesting area in that it can seem so simple – and in this day and age we can’t imagine people not having access to them – and yet the actual complexity in ensuring access and quality, and the costs involved, are huge,” she said.

“It is a fascinating topic in terms of working out how to address it as a human right across a range of different countries and contexts. It’s a wicked problem.”

During her career to date, Willetts has been instrumental in securing government support for aid projects in developing countries. She said the Australian Government supports significant work in the Asia Pacific region but that it is important to ensure money is spent strategically.

While people coming into the space often conflate a lack of access to water and sanitation with a lack of infrastructure, it goes beyond this.

“Often people assume we just need to build more water systems or more toilets, but it’s not about that. It’s about all the institutional systems that help maintain a service long-term,” Willetts said.

This includes addressing social and cultural norms that can lead to women and girls being left out of decision making, despite being disproportionately affected by a lack of access to water and sanitation. Research shows women do a greater proportion of water collection and suffer from safety and privacy challenges if they don’t have access to a toilet.

“We thought dealing with water and sanitation services was challenging, but working on gender inequality is even more complex and it can be slow for culturally embedded norms to change,” Willetts said.

“You have to be more careful when working on issues of gender equality; things need to be done sensitively.”

Despite the challenges, Willetts said WASH can provide an effective entry point for addressing gender inequality as it is traditionally seen as a women’s issue. She is currently working across Indonesia, Cambodia, Timor and Nepal on research focusing on gender equality and women’s empowerment as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Water for Women initiative.

“It’s not so radical to imagine women should have more of a say and make decisions at a household or community level. It’s an incremental step and an entry point,” she said.

With more than two billion people living without access to safely managed water services, and 4.5 billion without safely managed sanitation services, addressing the global issues of WASH can seem impossible.

However, Willetts said she is optimistic about the capacity of humans to make change. She said the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 was a positive step as they set out more ambitious targets compared to the Millennium Development Goals.

This includes achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable safely managed drinking water, and adequate and equitable safely managed sanitation and hygiene, for all by 2030.

“Many of the targets in the SDGs are ambitious but they’re also absolutely critical. It would be wrong to set the bar lower than they do,” Willetts said

“It does mean many countries may struggle to achieve the targets by 2030; they can feel out of reach. But they also help us to focus on what we can do and what progress can be made, and generate collective action to do as much as possible.”

Most of Willetts’ work involves collaborating across countries and organisations. She said working with likeminded people is helping to drive positive change in WASH.

“Step by step by step, things have been changing and evolving. In countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia, even though access to services remains unequal, you really can see progress,” she said.

“You can definitely see changes in policy and in the levels of service provision. It’s encouraging to know that everything’s not such a small drop in a big ocean, but rather that change is real and is possible.”

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