Water Portal / Rainwater Harvesting / WASH Environmental Sustainability Assessment

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In both rural and urban contexts, the quality of life of local communities largely depends on a functioning ecosystem. Water, land and other resources are all part of a single ecosystem, whose components cannot be dealt with separately. WASH interventions always affect the ecosystem and vice versa. This is why it is important to make your WASH project environmentally sustainable.

This landscape gives insight in the various factors at play between the environment and WASH interventions. An assessment of these factors will help you guide your WASH interventions to achieve environmental sustainability at a catchment level.

How do I make my WASH project environmentally sustainable?

These three steps will provide information on how you can make your WASH project environmentally more sustainable. We are working on an assessment tool that will be added at a later stage.

Step I: Assess

WASH projects require a thorough assessment of the catchment and the people living in it. Map the catchment and all issues related to water resources, waste flows, ecosystem services, diseases and the upstream-downstream connection between communities. Gather data on ecosystem services, climate change effects, water recharge and retention potential, community-ecosystem relationship, and biodiversity. Ask yourself questions such as: Where does the water in my well flow from and where does the waste from my latrine go? What are the characteristics of the local ecosystem? Which water resources and waste flows are present in the area? And, is there a prevalence of water-borne diseases in the area?

Step II: Analyse

Once you have mapped your area, its resources and people’s needs, map the location and functioning of current WASH services. Think about toilets, waste collection systems or water supply systems. What types of WASH services are currently used? How do people make use of these services? Once you have analysed the current WASH services, ask yourself how, where and why the ecosystem is currently affected by these WASH services. Is the environment over-exploited and are water sources depleting? Could you make more effective use of resources? Analysing this helps you to improve the environmental sustainability of the WASH services.

Step III: Understand and Optimise

Assessing the area and analysing the functioning of current WASH services not only provides you with information on how to optimise these WASH services, it also shows you how to create synergy between people and the ecosystem. This supports you in making the most effective use of the resources available in the area, whilst at the same time ensuring more sustainable access to these resources. Interesting activities include integrating rainwater harvesting technologies, wetland restoration and reforestation. Of course, different solutions can complement one another to achieve a more environmentally sustainable WASH project.

Read some valuable, practical recommendations on catchment-based approaches to Water Resource Management: Recommendations for Practitioners by Practitioners on Catchment-Based Approaches to Water Resources Management (CB WRM)


  1. Right from the start, take into account the potential environmental implications for WASH services and livelihoods in your project design.
  2. Always incorporate all relevant actors and their needs in the decision-making, planning and implementation process. And of course, environmental actors should always be part of this process.
  3. Consider the natural environment as an interlinked system. This includes the WASH project location and its surrounding villages, both up and downstream.
  4. Incorporate ecosystem services and their value (monetized and non-monetized). To do so, you need to know all about the availability of natural land and water resources and current waste flows in the area.
  5. Remain flexible to change directions within your WASH project planning. This way, you can make sure your solutions will still work if the world around you changes.

Approaches to Make WASH Environmentally Sustainable

Ecosystem Restoration A range of ecosystem restoration measures can be taken to support WASH services and livelihoods:

Combining water and land management

  • Protect critical mountain slopes, wetlands and forests to maintain springs and control soil erosion. For example by tree planting and stone stacking.
  • Demarcate wetlands to prevent encroachment. Provide compensation to affected families with alternative livelihood options
  • Allocate specific spaces for specific uses, such as water fetching, washing, harvesting of reeds and medical plants
  • Remove siltation

Addressing pollution Implement point-source pollution treatment and prevention plans. For example replace leaky latrines and strategically relocate them to avoid any contamination of clean water sources. Develop financial, legal and institutional incentives for non-point source pollution prevention, for example Payment for Ecosystems

Conserving biodiversity Maintain or restore habitats of (freshwater) species by allocating ‘recovery’ places within the ecosystem - meaning agreed spaces with no human interaction where fauna can mate, breed and forage. Introduce vegetation and species that are sympathetic to the water quality and quantity.

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Rain Water Harvesting: Recharge, Retention, Reuse Recharge, Retain, Reuse (3R) of rainwater is one sustainable and environmentally friendly way to provide people with water. 3R allows you to use the catchment itself as a buffer to store water without having to apply expensive and environmentally unfriendly technical solutions. 3R stands for the three elements required to store, manage and utilise water:
  • Recharging water involves the application of techniques for restoring groundwater levels through letting rainwater penetrate back into the ground.
  • Retaining water involves storing rainwater to ensure that the water does not flow away, but is captured in the area and made available when needed.
  • Re-using rainwater involves using and reusing water for multiple purposes.

Learn more about 3R in the online booklet Be Buffered.
Check out Rain is Gain, the rainwater harvesting guide for sustainable water supply, and find an overview of different 3R techniques.
Also have a look at the Rainwater Harvesting Wiki.

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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle of Waste (Flows) Incorporating Reduce, Reuse and Recycle practices in your WASH project can help you to:
  • Reduce contamination and spillage
  • Recycle waste and sewage
  • Reuse waste and sewage water flows

A model called Integrated Sustainable Waste Management (ISWM) can help you to turn your Reduce, Re-use and Recycle ideas into practice. What does ISWM do?

  • It promotes technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable waste management solutions that do not degrade the environment.
  • It promotes the development of a waste management system that best suits the society, economy and environment in a specific location.
  • It provides a practical tool to look more in-depth at the actual needs of the people. This way, it helps local governments and their technical staff to go beyond the simple importation of Northern waste management models, systems and technologies.

Learn more about the Integrated Solid Waste Management model of Dutch WASH Alliance partner WASTE.

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Low Cost, Low Maintenance and Environmentally Friendly Technologies When dealing with water and sanitation, a wide range of technologies are at hand. To choose the right technology, you need to take into account the outcome of your landscape assessment. Depending on this outcome, a combination of natural and man-made solutions can be selected. At the same time, it is important to consider the costs, maintenance requirements and environmental friendliness of the technologies. Choosing sustainable drinking water and sanitation technologies requires awareness on the following five aspects:
  • The costs of the technologies. It is wise to make use of options that can be locally financed and that are already available on the local market.
  • The availability of specific low maintenance technologies and the maintenance capacities of local mechanics or plumbers.
  • The risks of groundwater depletion. With today’s sophisticated extraction technologies, the risk of pumping too much water increases significantly.
  • The location of your project, to reduce the chances of water contamination. For instance, by placing sanitation systems downstream from human settlements and upstream from agricultural activities, you can avoid possible drinking water contamination and reuse the waste flows for agriculture fertiliser.
  • Protection of springs and wells from pollution from their immediate surroundings. You can think of protecting their surroundings from normal runoff and during floods; keeping animal husbandry and latrines at a distance of drinking water; or launching waste management initiatives.

The WaterCompass can help you further with making informed decisions on low cost, low maintenance and environmental friendly water methods for your project. It comprises more than 70 sustainable technologies.

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