Running water Dispatch from the field: Ben Williams, Aga Khan Foundation (India)

There is a mix of frustration, anxiety, and shame that comes along with clogging a toilet. Growing up, I would get out the plunger, fix my toilet, and go on with my day. Beyond that, I had never really given much thought to toilets and human waste while I lived in Canada. But that has changed since I took part in AKFC’s International Youth Fellowship program.

My fellowship was in New Delhi, working with Aga Khan Foundation (India) as part of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) team. WASH, besides being a nice acronym, is a growing sector that broadly encompasses anything related to running water, drinking water, toilets, waste management, and human behaviours like handwashing.

I knew virtually nothing about the WASH sector when I arrived, but I have since come understand the impact access to things like running water, toilets, and soap can have on one’s life.

I now appreciate how convenient it is for me to access these same things in Canada. I have constant access to drinking water in my home. Not only that, I bathe daily in it. I never come into contact with human waste. Many of us, me included, don’t even know where our waste ends up after we flush, because we have never needed to worry about it.

Toilets like these help improve sanitation and hygiene by keeping waste contained. Improved sanitation facilities also help improve safety and quality of life, particularly for women and girls, who often bear the burden of transporting water long distances for home use.

These issues are not limited to homes; WASH access is essential at institutions as well. People need access to safe water, toilets, and waste facilities in places they frequent: work, schools, and even healthcare facilities.

According to a recent report by the WHO and UNICEF, an estimated 1 in 5 healthcare facilities around the world have no sanitation service, impacting 1.5 billion people. It is likely that many more people are served by health care facilities lacking hand hygiene facilities and safe waste management.

Ben visited a couple of local villages to try to understand how access to and behaviours surrounding the use of WASH facilities affected the health of new mothers and their babies.

During my fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Bahraich district in the province of Uttar Pradesh to collect data. More than three million people live in Bahraich, and we visited the 14 community health centres that serve them. At each facility, we assessed the toilets, handwashing stations, waste management system, and overall cleanliness.

During the assessments, I was able to meet and interview staff members at each centre, to understand what underlying factors contributed to both the positive and negative results.

Ben conducts an interview with a medical officer at a Community Health Centre in Bahraich.

The results of the assessments have been shared back to the healthcare facilities as well as relevant district authorities to help them begin to make any necessary course corrections. AKF can help develop implementation strategies based on the data collected, and conduct follow-ups.

Getting to visit the healthcare centres helped bring to life the WASH concepts I had spent weeks researching, and it reinforced the importance of bringing about universal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. As I begin to build my career as a young professional in development, I know that my time and experience with the youth fellowship will serve as a strong foundation.

The International Youth Fellowship program helps young Canadian professional launch careers in development by working for a host organization in Africa or Asia. The program is supported by the Government of Canada and Aga Khan Foundation Canada, through the funds raised by World Partnership Walk and Golf. Ben’s placement at Aga Khan Foundation (India) ended in February 2020.

Financial support:


Ben Williams