By Hadeel Hamoud & Sama Elmahdy 

This summer we laid the foundation for our project, setting us up for primary data collection and analysis in the fall. Our project centers around identifying challenges and opportunities for resilience and capacity building among international and local organizations, UN agencies, and other humanitarian actors working to expand and enhance access water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) so they can better face crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We chose Egypt and Sudan as case studies given our experience and familiarity with those contexts (being Egyptian-American and Sudanese-American). We are both interested in health and human security as well as the linkages between the environment, peace, and conflict and consequently joined the 2020-2021 Bass Connections project team on, “Mapping COVID-19 and WASH in MENA”. This project is consequently an expansion of that research. By understanding how humanitarian actors responded to COVID-19, we hope to identify lines of evidence that could lead to converging conclusions about lessons learned during the pandemic and recommendations for effective short and long-term mechanisms to build resilience. In doing so, we also hope to highlight cooperative opportunities within WASH service provision in order to inform and enhance peacebuilding operations.

Protracted conflicts in the MENA region have led to the collapse and decreased capacity of WASH systems and services. Humanitarian actors have played a crucial role in filling gaps in supply and service provision. Our study focuses on how these actors’ responses to continue and enhance the supply of WASH in conflict and crisis situations, focusing on factors for sustainable and effective resilience building. We’re also placing a particular emphasis on how refugees and internally displaced people living in peri-urban and urban spaces are impacting service provision and how service provision is responding to these population changes. There is a growing body of literature emphasizing the need to integrate the needs of refugees, IDPs, and host communities in urban and peri-urban spaces to promote equitable service provision. Our research will contribute to this space in academic literature.

Our first step was to conduct a review of the existing literature on WASH service provision in Egypt and Sudan. We needed to get a better understanding of the information that was available in order to better inform our own study and determine how our study could fill the gaps in existing literature. Moreover, we wanted to begin mapping out the international institutions, state actors (from the national level to municipalities), and grassroots actors working to provide WASH services.

Despite our focus on peri-urban and urban spaces, the sources we collected varied in depth and scope. Some focused on WASH access broadly in the MENA region, while others were specific studies centered around Egypt’s access to WASH in more rural areas. From there, we categorized the sources according to which aspect of our study they were providing information for and began writing our literature review. We also compiled a list of contacts for the study. We found contact information for international and local NGOs in Egypt and Sudan including UNICEF, USAID, Tadamun, the World Bank and other organizations. Beyond that, we also found several contacts of authors and researchers in the area who could provide us with valuable insight into conducting our own study. We decided that we would first conduct informational interviews with these contacts to better inform our study.

One of the most informative pieces of literature was a study conducted by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) Advisory, and UNICEF entitled, “Water, crises and conflict in MENA: how can water service providers improve their resilience” (2017). This study similarly used a resilience conceptual framework to explore water provision systems across the MENA region and understand the most effective responses to crises. While the scope of the study focused on several countries across MENA including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and centered around water provision systems, its conceptual framework and methodologies helped shape and inform our own study.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was defining the scope and conceptual framing of the study. As such, we interviewed one of the authors of the WSUP/UNICEF study to better understand the concepts and theories underlying the study and to gain insight on the mechanics of the study’s methodology. The interview was incredibly insightful. We talked to the author about the project ideation and development process for the WSUP/UNICEF study as well as interview and trust-building techniques so that we could gain rich data, particularly since interviewees’ may have transparency or privacy concerns. The author discussed how resilience can be framed as not the capacity of a system to just bounce back but to bounce forward. Our study will use this conceptual foundation for defining resilience but also incorporate a discussion of the linkages between resilience and peacebuilding. We also discussed methods for triangulating evidence from international, state, and grassroots actors to produce a comprehensive list of the most effective crisis response mechanisms.

Two researchers after one of their interviews with one of the authors of, “Water, crises and conflict in MENA: how can water service providers improve their resilience” (2017).

Once we had built a solid foundation of source material from which we were basing our study, we developed interview questions for our interviewees. The objective of the interviews is to better discern humanitarian actors’ experiences with COVID-19 on the ground and answer our overarching research questions centering the study: 1) how did COVID-19 impact existing efforts by humanitarian actors to expand the capacities of the WASH sector; 2) how did the pandemic foster new interventions or crisis response measures; and 3) what recommendations and lessons learned can be identified to promote short and long-term resilience and sustainable peacebuilding. The interviews include questions about humanitarian operations on the ground, information about WASH service provision, projects implemented before COVID-19, and the impact of and response mechanisms to the pandemic. Our IRB was approved and we are getting ready to finalize our literature review and begin collecting interviews with humanitarian actors in the international and local spheres! We are also looking to utilize the Duke Human Rights Archive to gain more information about how humanitarian actors have historically operated in the WASH sector.