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WASH: a sociocultural approach which is necessary for humanitarian operations

In 2013, Groupe URD designed a tool for the International Federation of the Red Cross to evaluate and analyse the integration of socio-cultural factors in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). This tool is an operational mechanism which should allow the IFRC to take the socio-cultural factors of host communities into account during its operations.

There are many examples of WASH programmes carried out in emergency contexts which are rapidly no longer used by the population because the programmes are not adapted to the population’s socio-cultural practices : toilets pointing towards Mecca in Sri Lanka, drilling abandoned because it is situated near a sacred site in Burkina Faso, WASH infrastructure located in an area which does not respect customary law in Chad (examples from an AFD/URD working document [1] from 2011)… There have been a lot of issues of this kind in Haiti. Looking beyond the financial and technical aspects of WASH issues to grasp social complexity helps to adapt operations and not limit ourselves to an over-simplified reading of behaviour.

 A WASH socio-cultural tool to improve understanding of the host society

Water is an essential element to nourish the earth and nourish human beings, wash foodstuffs and look after one’s body. But it is more than that. Though the ‘technical’ aspect of water is one of the crucial components of any humanitarian or development operation, through the creation of water points in particular, it should not be viewed purely in terms of its ‘physiological necessity’. Indeed, water is related to a large number of symbols, interpretations and perceptions: despite the fact that this is intangible data, those who are responsible for WASH programmes should be aware of these so that they adapt their programmes as much as possible to the social reality of the host society concerned.

But how should this social complexity be approached, in emergency contexts and in longer timeframes? The WASH socio-cultural tool was developed in order to improve understanding of the host society, to identify the drivers and barriers to the application of WASH programmes, and to favour the appropriation of projects by beneficiaries. It provides a framework of key questions which help to understand the host society. These questions are split into WASH sectors (“water”, “hygiene”, “toilets”, “awareness-raising”, etc.) and into themes. For each point, an explanation helps the user to understand how the information obtained in the response will allow them to understand the host society better and to adapt their programmes accordingly.