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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 63 - Thursday, 12 February 2009
The WEDC International Conference: focusing on water and sanitation issues in low-income countries since 1973
By Julie Fisher and Brian Reed, Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC)
In 1973, 63 delegates gathered at the Department of Civil Engineering at the Loughborough University of Technology for the first two-day international conference on “Environmental Health Engineering in Hot Climates and Developing Countries.” 48 of those attending were UK professionals working predominantly in developing countries; 15 were overseas students or professionals studying in Britain or working both in the UK and overseas. Four papers were presented.

Since then, a further 32 conferences, which became known as the “WEDC Conference,” on the provision of infrastructure services for low- and middle-income countries have been held in either Africa or Asia. Over the last ten years, the now five-day long conference has been attended by over 400 delegates on average, from over 78 countries. The majority of those attending (more than 90%) are from low and middle income countries– a statistic unique to this type of event. Unlike other conferences, most of the delegates are practitioners and national and local decision makers. Since 1980, it has been co-organized and hosted in a low-or middle-income country - another unique feature, attracting wide participation from the host country, from those who might not normally be able to attend an international event.

The WEDC Conference was the idea of the late Professor John Pickford OBE, who founded WEDC in 1971, in response to a need for the “study and dissemination of knowledge and ideas connected with the technology and management of environmental health engineering in hot climates and developing countries” (Pickford, 19761). WEDC, as part of the Department of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University, has become one of the world's leading education, training, research and consultancy institutes concerned with improving access to infrastructure services for people in low- and middle-income countries. Alongside WEDC research outputs, and its short and post graduate courses, the conference still fulfils Professor Pickford’s original aim by providing a forum for the exchange of experience and learning between practitioners, academics and policy makers working in the sector.

The format of the conference has changed radically since the 1970s, when discussion on a single paper could last half a day. In recent years, the number of papers presented has averaged 110, covering a wide range of topics relating to aspects of water supply, water resources, environmental sanitation, institutional and management issues and knowledge management, from social, technical, economic and environmental perspectives. The proceedings of all conferences since 1994 are available for free download at and have proved to be an invaluable resource for practitioners, academics and students alike. The topics addressed reflect the demands and solutions within the sector and show the development thinking and approaches of the time.

An example of this is papers presented and co-authored by women, the first of which appeared in 1980, just before the start of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD) (1981-1990), which was derived from a call for ‘clean water for all.’ Similarly, representation of women at the conference, as delegates or paper authors, was less than 10% during the 1980s, rising to 17% in 1992 (Bell and Ince, 1993)2. It now stands at roughly 30%, and demonstrates the increase in professional opportunities for women in the sector. Papers on gender-related issues increased very slowly and only appeared consistently from 1988, showing a time lag between the concerns of the IDWSSD and both the acceptance of the importance of a gender perspective and the reality of women’s lives. Editorially, these are not separated into a separate conference session but are mainstreamed throughout the programme in order to expose all participants to these issues.

Looking at the list of conference titles over the years, the major concerns of the sector are clear. For example, conferences in the early 1990s were influenced by the Dublin Statement, issued at the International Conference on Water and Environment in 1992, which stressed the need for action “to reverse the present trends of overconsumption, pollution, and rising threats from drought and floods.” It emphasized a participatory approach to water management, the central part played by women in water provision, and a recognition of water as an economic good as a means of achieving equitable use, and of encouraging conservation of water resources. Titles such as “Water, Sanitation, Environment and Development” (Ghana, 1993) and “Water and Sanitation for All: Partnerships and Innovations” (South Africa, 1997) show how the focus of the WEDC Conference contributes to the debate and learning on current issues. Similarly in 2003 in Nigeria, in the third of the 15 years set for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the conference reviewed progress “Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Most recently in 2008, the International Year of Sanitation, sanitation was the specific focus in “Access to Sanitation and Safe Water: Global Partnerships and Local Actions.” However, despite reflecting international concerns, the conference also provides an insight into on-going problems in the field. This provides policy makers with a snap shot of the reality on the ground, regardless of international trends and latest theories.

33rd WEDC conference (2008) in Accra, Ghana
Hosted by the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Resources, this year’s conference on “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Sustainable Development and Multisectoral Approaches” will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 18-22 May. Improving water supplies and environmental sanitation has moved from being a subject only for technical specialists to one involving a wide range of people, from policy-makers to community workers, from social scientists and economists to faith-based groups and campaigners for women's rights. Increasingly, these actors have to work in partnership and Ethiopia provides examples of this. Water services rely on sustainable development and management of water resources. Similarly, health improvements depend on the quality of water supply and sanitation facilities as well as hygiene practices and health services. This requires good communication and exchange of information between differing institutions, so that they can understand and contribute to the greater goals.

Sectors can also work together, learning lessons from each other. For example, developments in promoting sanitation at village level have implications for low-cost water supply, environmental protection and gender. Benchmarking the performance of institutions can influence the training of staff to ensure capacity building is focussed on the sector's real needs. Consultation with vulnerable groups such as women, children or disabled people can inspire technical staff to develop new solutions that meet the users' requirements. Hygiene promotion can be carried out by a range of people, from schoolteachers to the mass media.

The 34th WEDC International Conference will focus on these issues, bringing together practitioners, decision makers and researchers from different sectors and from the field, government office or university laboratory, to exchange views and present the latest findings through presentations, discussions and informal networking, with field trips to examples of current work in Ethiopia.

Perhaps the last word should go to the participants who make the conference a success and who are the best judges of its real value:
“... the only event that brings practitioners, professionals and academics together onto a common platform...” (32nd Conference, NGO personnel, Switzerland)
“... I learnt about the approach and experience of people from other countries ...” (33rd Conference, EU Programme Manager, Nigeria)
“... listening to and participating in discussions about real issues happening in this field ...” (33rd Conference, NGO personnel, Kenya).
1 Pickford, J. (1976) Water and Waste Engineering for Developing Countries. University of Technology, Loughborough.
2 Bell, M. and Ince, M. (1993) Women professional in water and sanitation development: the WEDC experience, in Workshop in Gender and Water Resources Management. Lessons Learned and Strategies for the Future. Stockholm, 1993.
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