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WASH in Watersheds

Connecting people and nature through water


Communities around the world depend directly on healthy freshwater ecosystems for food, drinking water, protection from damaging floods and more. However, the management of water for people and water for nature are often treated as distinct and separate agendas.

We want to change that. Conservation International recognizes that the health of communities and the health of ecosystems are inextricably linked. Water, poverty and the environment are interconnected, and the long-term sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene services — known collectively as WASH — depends on nature’s ability to provide reliable sources of water.

Our role

Conservation International’s WASH in Watersheds program helps communities link WASH and freshwater conservation activities in a holistic way that is supported by strong governance, inclusive management and local stewardship.

Our goal is to increase awareness of the connections between resilient communities and freshwater ecosystems at all levels, and promote long-term human health and conservation outcomes.

Our Plan

Conservation International is working in sites around the world to foster enduring environmental stewardship and build community resilience through WASH in Watersheds.

Working with communities

In South Africa, poor land and water management practices have impacted the catchment of the Mzimvubu — one of South Africa’s last free flowing rivers. Destructive grazing practices, invasive plant species and inadequate sanitation infrastructure have degraded the river and reduced the quality and quantity of water flowing to communities downstream.

Since 2015, Conservation South Africa — Conservation International’s local affiliate — has worked with communities in this area to improve the well-being of local people by restoring the health of their watershed. Our first step: Separating the main water sources for animals and people to decrease the likelihood of contamination by livestock and potential disease outbreaks from animal waste. Then, we worked with local volunteers to remove water-thirsty, invasive plants in the region and restore natural springs, while collaborating with the local government to launch several education campaigns about good health and sanitation practices.

Developing tools

Since 2010, Conservation International has been a thought leader, linking WASH and human health with conservation activities. Under the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, supported by the US Agency for International Development, we worked with sector experts to create guidelines and a monitoring and evaluation framework that integrate WASH and freshwater.

Conservation International is also building tools with partners to support improved hygiene and other behavior change. For example, to help pastoralists in South Africa’s rangelands understand the importance of adopting good land use practices in the “veld” — grasslands where they graze their livestock — we developed and disseminated a veld sanitation manual for local communities.

Leveraging change and collaboration

Conservation International is committed to increasing the impact of our programmatic work by scaling up policy, planning and financing. Our advocacy strategy guide, developed in collaboration with IRC, a non-profit supporting sanitation and hygiene services, and the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, aims to help development practitioners engage effectively and improve freshwater conservation and WASH at national and sub-national levels.

Conservation International leads the WASH-Conservation Working Group, a coalition of a dozen development and conservation organizations that seeks to advance shared commitments through technical programming, advocacy, awareness-raising and by maximizing investments.


By the numbers

2.4 billion

The number of people without access to improved sanitation facilities, according to the UN.

The WASH in Watersheds approach contends that when certain basic needs are met and their links to improved conservation outcomes are made clear, people become stronger advocates for conservation.


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