DESAFIO literally means “challenge” in both Portuguese and Spanish, and the main aim of this new project is to make a contribution towards tackling what is arguably one of the major challenges facing Brazil -and Latin American and Caribbean countries more generally- in the twenty-first century: eradicating structural social inequality in the access to essential water and sanitation services (WSS).

The main tenet of DESAFIO is that achieving the development goals set by the international community for the next two decades in relation to the reduction of poverty levels and enhancing environmental sustainability, crucially depends on harnessing existing and developing new appropriate and innovative socio-technical solutions for the provision of safe WSS.

Our central research problem can be summed up in the following questions:

  • How can we harness existing and develop new socio-technical innovations in order to change policies, to develop strategies and practical interventions, and to enhance policy learning for tackling unacceptable inequalities and injustice in the access to essential WSS?
  • What conditions, factors and processes facilitate the emergence of socio-technical innovations in this sector?
  • What are the critical requirements to make successful socio-technical innovations sustainable and replicable?
  • What are the obstacles to their sustainability and replication?

We argue that the main challenges facing the international community in this area are not merely technical or environmental, but are rather grounded on and conditioned by economic, socio-political, cultural and policy-institutional processes. Therefore, what is required is the development of appropriate and innovative socio-technical interventions, grounded on the principles of substantive democracy and citizenship, to facilitate the involvement of users in the identification of their problems and in the design, implementation and monitoring of socio-technical solutions.

Strategic objectives:

1. Achieving a better understanding of:

  • the challenges and opportunities facing the implementation of “good governance” principles in the rational management of essential WSS
  • the conditions, factors and processes that facilitate the emergence of socio-technical innovations
  • the critical requirements to make successful socio-technical innovations sustainable and replicable; the obstacles to their sustainability and replication

2. Fostering interdisciplinary coordination between the natural, social and technical scientific disciplines

3. Pursuing transdisciplinary research and networking activities involving academic and non-academic actors in the production of knowledge and the implementation of policy

4. Enhancing the chances of practical achievements at the local level in relation to the EU Water Initiative, the MDGs, and the additional targets set in the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The emphasis will be placed on sustainability, poverty reduction, and the elimination of inequalities in the access to essential WSS by the most disadvantaged sectors of the population

5. Contributing to the implementation of European development policies and to the consolidation of the European Research Area (ERA).

Specific objectives:

We aim to deliver:

1. An inter- and transdisciplinary theoretical and methodological foundation for the study of the opportunities and challenges facing the development and implementation of sustainable, appropriate, and innovative socio-technical solutions for the safe delivery of essential WSS. This will allow us to establish a baseline against which impact will be assessed, following six analytical dimensions: socio-political and cultural, economic-financial, health, ecological-environmental, techno-infrastructural/operational, and policy-institutional.

2. An assessment of recent and current strategies for the design and implementation of sustainable, appropriate, and innovative socio-technical solutions for the provision of WSS in conditions of social vulnerability. To achieve this objective we will:

a. Assess the impact, efficacy, effectiveness, efficiency and replicability of the ‘condominial’ and ‘integrated sanitation’ systems designed and implemented in Brazil. Particular emphasis will be placed on the interaction between the social and technical dimensions of the process, such as the level of appropriation of the socio-technical innovations by local communities, their role in the process of design-implementation-maintenance of the systems, and the long-term interrelations between users, authorities, and technical experts in the running of WSS, etc. This will provide the basis for understanding the challenges and opportunities for the development of sustainable, appropriate, and innovative socio- technical solutions that allow for improving communities’ access to WSS, including the processes of water quality monitoring, and the safe reclaiming, recycling and reuse of water within local socio-cultural and economic constraints.

b. Carry out an evaluation of the existing institutions and policy instruments in charge of the governance and management of water resources and WSS in the chosen case studies, at the level of the basin (but taking into account their interconnection with relevant local, regional, national, international and global processes), focusing on the analytical dimensions stated in objective 1. This will include,

  • a rigorous description and analysis of the specific water-related public health issues identified in the proposed case studies; such as estimations of the burden of WSS- related impacts for local households (particular attention will be given to ensure that female headed households, usually among the poorest of the poor, will be fully represented);
  • an evaluation of the vulnerability of water infrastructures, their conditions for operation and maintenance, and of the impacts of the failure of water systems on vulnerable communities;
  • a survey of the emerging patterns of technology use in the different settings being studied and an examination of the link between success and failure with particular reference to replication of success and to the barriers to replication;
  • identifying the local impact of improvements to WSS management systems;
  • mapping the socio-political and cultural factors and processes that condition and frame the particular ways in which water resources and WSS are governed and managed. This includes the consideration of the socio-economic, cultural, religious, and political values and perceptions attached to these resources, as well as the role of education inbehavioural changes regarding the patterns of domestic water management and use and hygienic practice;
  • examination of the types of conflicts affecting the management of water resources and WSS and their causes, and of the conflict-resolution strategies that may exist;
  • a detailed inventory of factors, drivers, thresholds, and processes that help to explain the success or failure in the design, implementation and long-term sustainability of the socio-technical solutions under observation.

3. The planning, design, assessment, implementation, monitoring, and validation of sustainable, appropriate, and innovative socio-technical interventions for the provision of safe WSS to vulnerable communities in specific target settings.

  • This will be done by actively engaging communities, local authorities, and other relevant actors in the whole process, from planning to validation of the chosen solutions;
  • The interventions will emphasise solutions that prioritize the needs of the relevant local communities and seek to attain a balance between efficacy, effectiveness and efficiency, including considerations such as low running costs, energy efficiency, minimization of the use of chemicals in treatment, etc.

4. A systematic comparative analysis of the results and findings emerging from the assessment of existing experiences and the newly developed interventions.

5. A framework of strategy and processes, expressed by relevant Guidelines for the Design and Implementation of Sustainable, Appropriate and Innovative Socio-Technical Solutions for the provision of safe WSS in vulnerable communities. This will include,

  • a range of structured scenarios with policy options for consideration by decision-makers in their particular circumstances;
  • diagnosis and conceptualisation of viable institutional arrangements for WSS, emphasising the diversity of institutional and management options and including the development of integrated policies, strategies, management tools, and practices;
  • identification, determination, and formulation of appropriate sets of decision-support instruments and systems required for safe WSS, incorporating lessons from both North- Southand South-South experiences;

6. A report identifying needs and opportunities for further research emerging from the project.

7. A comprehensive programme of engagement and dissemination of the project’s results. This will include:

  • The active engagement from the start of civil society (community organizations, citizen movements, NGOs, basin committees, etc.), the state (national, regional, and local government levels, regulatory bodies, etc.), and market actors (SMEs and other relevant private sector organisations in the WSS sector).
  • Organizing meetings at the local level with the participation of relevant actors (government agencies, NGOs, community organisations, etc.) for presentation of results and reception of feedback.
  • Organising one international conference for exchange of experiences and results.
  • Setting up and maintaining a website.
  • Launching and developing a regular e-newsletter.
  • Participating in relevant conferences and other academic and non-academic meetings.
  • Producing academic publications.
  • Producing short articles targeted to decision-makers, practitioners and other relevant actors (e.g. policy briefs).
  • Feeding the research work and results into teaching and research programmes at the participating academic institutions.