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A Business Accelerator Puts India’s Urban WASH Challenges Front and Center

Cities in India today are plagued by multiple water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenges. Drinking water supply and sanitation facilities continue to be inadequate. India tops the global list of countries with the largest urban population without access to sanitation. The rapid pace of urbanization growing at an annual rate of 2.1 percent further compounds this problem, and sustainability of water and sanitation services is expected to be affected even more severely in the future.

Common problems across urban locations, such as the lack of space for the development of sanitation facilities, low sewerage network coverage, inadequate number of functional toilets (leading to open defecation) and poor maintenance, continue to persist. These challenges are exacerbated by the lack of water availability, outdated technology, and poor design and construction quality of toilets. Coupled with these, improper public toilet usage as a behavioral issue also needs attention.


The government of India with its Swacch Bharat Mission and AMRUT programs has captured the attention of the world with its efforts to provide safe drinking water and sanitation services for all. However, densely populated cities combined with rapid urbanization and India’s limited urban WASH infrastructure continue to create bottlenecks in the realization of these efforts. The challenges are complex and in order to address them, stakeholders need to move beyond the business-as-usual approach, exploring long-term sustainable partnerships and fostering structural changes in the urban WASH sector. An increased focus on public-private partnerships and a rise of collaborative structures for collective impact are some of the solutions for these problems. In other words, alliances of individuals and organizations from governments, the nonprofit sector, development experts, investors and businesses together using their diverse perspectives and resources can jointly address these issues, thereby ensuring access to water and sanitation for all as envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals.


Why is working with the government to address urban WASH in India so crucial? Longstanding efforts by various levels of government and communities to improve coverage have not yet yielded lasting results. The fastest way for any sustainable innovation to create a large-scale impact is through business and government collaboration.

Most countries have solved their WASH problems through relatively conventional tools, that is, by creating large-scale centralized WASH infrastructure financed by governments, public-private partnerships and development funds. Though successful, this model requires a proportionate amount of financing and resources.

It is easy to see why it is important for governments to play a key role in fostering these innovations. Governments have the resources and the means to create rapid social change. However, this advantage also comes with the inherent disadvantage of being slow to spot new opportunities, and an inability to test and iterate new models quickly. On the other hand, private sector companies have the talent, resources, know-how and capacity to relentlessly focus on solving a problem and doing it repeatedly at scale.


In India and across the world, a number of innovators and entrepreneurs are creating new technologies, products, services, business models and ways of reusing resources to solve these urban WASH problems. Most of these innovations are based on a deep understanding of the problem, and on insights that are often ignored or impossible for larger organizations to uncover. Most of them have been tested in a few pilots, communities and cities successfully. However, compared with the size of the WASH problems Indian cities face, these success stories quickly become inconsequential. The need of the hour is to find ways to help these startups, entrepreneurs and innovators rapidly scale their innovations to solve a substantial part of the problem.


What if there were a platform for insightful innovators to work with the resources of the government, with support from private sector companies and domain experts to test, iterate and deploy WASH innovations that have a significant edge over existing mainstream WASH solutions?

The USAID-supported Innovation Hub for Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IHUWASH) is such a platform. It attempts to foster cross-disciplinary partnerships with governments, research institutions, universities, industry bodies, private sector companies, sector experts and innovators to sustainably solve some of urban India’s most pressing WASH problems.

As part of the IHUWASH project, the IHUWASH Accelerator is actively looking to identify WASH innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as private sector companies and sector experts wanting to further WASH innovations for urban India.

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