Equality in water and sanitation services (Cumming and Slaymaker, 2018)

Stef Smits

HD Cumming, O. and Slaymaker, T. (Eds). 2018. Equality in water and sanitation services. Routledge, eBook ISBN 9781315471532, 336 p.

(URL: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315471532)

Stef Smits

IRC, The Netherlands, smits@ircwash.org

To cite this Review: Smits, S. 2019. Review of "Equality in water and sanitation services", Routledge, 2018, edited by O. Cumming, O. and T. Slaymaker, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/62-equality


The book 'Equality in water and sanitation services', edited by Oliver Cumming and Tom Slaymaker aims to be "a text book and point of reference for students, policy makers and practitioners with interest in the topic of reduction of inequalities in access to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) services".

The book is structured in four parts: 1) equality as a global priority for the sector, 2) an exploration of the different dimensions of inequality, 3) addressing inequalities, and 4) monitoring of inequalities. Each of these parts consists of three to five chapters. Those are written by renowned experts working for international organizations, such as UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank, or universities such as London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Cranfield University and the University of North Carolina.

As the book itself also makes clear, the topic of understanding and addressing inequalities is very timely. The urgency to work on this is driven by the Human Right to Water and Sanitation on the one hand, and the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) framework on the other. Together they provide both a legal and political imperative to work on this issue.

The book provides indeed a point of reference through this collection of chapters, in which a range of pertinent issues related to the complex issue of inequalities are explored. However, the book remains that: a collection of individual chapters (some very good, others less so), but not a book that takes the reader through the issue in a comprehensive or systematic manner.

The first part presents the rationale and priority for equality. Within that, chapter 2 – which covers the human right to water and to sanitation - is by far the most relevant. It provides a concise summary of what these two human rights imply, and what it means for addressing equality. It once and for all clarifies the difference between equality and equity (two terms that are not easy to differentiate for non-native English speakers; a google-translate to my native language – Dutch – helped less than the explanation in this book). It made me realise that achieving equality is a faraway dream and will only be reached if access to WASH services is truly universal. More helpful in the short term are concepts like substantive equality, i.e. treating people with different needs in a targeted manner, so they can achieve the same outcomes; and immediate equality: governments having the obligation to develop plans to work towards equality as eventual outcome. It also introduces some of the key dimensions of equality. In a way, this chapter should really have been the first chapter of the book, as it is the only chapter that provides an overview of the topic, and defines the key terminology. Current chapter 1 deals with lessons from monitoring, and actually would fit better in the fourth part of the book.

The second part explores four dimensions of equality: empowerment, gender, environment and urban poverty. In my view, this is the weakest part of the book. For example, the chapter on environment – though a well-written chapter – barely touches on equality issues; it just reviews environmental threats to WASH, and within that focuses mainly on groundwater. The chapter on urban poverty provides a – valid – critique on the JMP (Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene) indicators and their application in urban contexts, but does not really explore the urban poverty dimension of equality.

Two of the strongest chapters of the book are found in part 3, which deals with how particular dimensions of equality can be addressed. Particularly strong are the chapters on funding and financing (Chapter 8), in relation to affordability and the one on WASH needs of people with special needs, particularly people with disabilities, older people and people living with HIV (chapter 9). Both chapters provide useful frameworks for working on these dimensions.

The final part presents trends in monitoring inequalities, covering how current JMP monitoring works, methods for enhanced monitoring using time series, and monitoring the costs and finance of WASH service delivery, also in relation to affordability. Surely, the monitoring of inequalities – and particularly the promising trends therein- are a good way of working towards the closure of the book, as monitoring would tell us whether we are on track towards equality. However, what is missing in this final Part is some concluding chapter, in which the various dimensions of equality – as for example presented in chapter 2 – are brought together. Based on the information provided in the book it would have been possible to summarise, for each of the dimensions of inequality, what the conclusions are on the current status and what a forward-looking agenda could be. As it stands now, the various issues are left hanging at the level of individual chapters.

This book being a collection of separate papers is reflected in other ways as well:

  • Almost all of the chapters start with a review of SDG6 and why that provides an imperative to address equality. That is fine for individual papers, but not for a book. After having given that imperative in the chapters of Part 1, all subsequent chapters could have eliminated that background, and taken out unnecessary (and by the end annoying) repetition.
  • There is some inconsistency in the use of key terminology. Chapter 2 presents the differentiation between equality and equity, and highlights why equality is most important from a legal point of view. But in some of the subsequent chapters, the two terms get mixed up again.
  • Some of the elements of equality that are presented in Chapter 2 do not come back in the remainder of the book. For example the issue of immediate equality struck me as being very important, as it implies governments need to plan for working towards universal access. But, none of the chapters deals with this kind of macro-level planning, and how that can be done, or what the status of that is at the moment.

In conclusion, some of the chapters in this book – the ones on the human right to water and sanitation, on funding and financing, on addressing people with special needs, on trends in monitoring inequalities, amongst others – provide definitely a point of reference on these respective issues. But the book as a whole is lacking in that aspect. If it would have a clearer introduction, conclusion, and editing across the chapters to take out unnecessary repetition and inconsistencies, it could have been also a reference on the overall topic of equalities in WASH.



Additional Info

  • Authors: O. Cumming, T. Slaymaker
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Stef Smits
  • Subject: Water governance, WASH, Equity
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English