Issue 45 - Article 11

Implementing the WASH Cluster: good practice and lessons learned

December 16, 2009
Louise Boughen and Henri Leturque, Global WASH Cluster Learning Project

This article summarises the findings of a learning initiative by the Global WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene promotion) Cluster, led by Action Against Hunger (ACF-UK). It provides a synthesis of good practices, lessons learned and recommendations for the roll-out of the cluster approach in the WASH sector. The analysis draws on performance reviews carried out by the Global Cluster Learning Project, self-evaluations, independent evaluations and internal and peer reviews. Progress towards achieving the cluster approach’s objectives – improved leadership, accountability, predictability and partnership – is also analysed, although there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the impact of the WASH clusters on the overall effectiveness of humanitarian response.

 The cluster approach has been used by the WASH sector in more than 35 countries since 2005. Figure 1 provides an overview of countries that have established a WASH Cluster, either in response to a rapid-onset emergency or as part of the phased roll-out of the approach in ongoing emergencies. The Learning Project conducted reviews of WASH Cluster performance in seven countries: three ‘roll-outs’ (Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic) and four rapid-onset emergencies (Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic and Myanmar). It also drew on two external reviews (Pakistan and Mozambique) and a self-evaluation (Somalia).




The Global WASH Cluster Learning Project

As a part of the learning initiative, reviews were carried out using an inter-agency approach where possible, focusing on whether the cluster approach within the WASH sector:

  • strengthened accountability, predictability, leadership and partnership;
  • improved the planning and management of programming and procedures;
  • improved service quality; and
  • improved coordination.

Performance was assessed with reference to the IASC Generic Terms of Reference for Cluster/Sector Leads.[1]




Note: 1 = Indonesia, 2 = Uganda, 3 = DRC, 4 = CAR, 5 = Bangladesh, 6 = Dominican Republic, 7 = Myanmar

Coordination mechanisms have been established in all seven countries, with national/local agencies involved in the majority of cases. However, the effectiveness of these coordination mechanisms is limited in most countries. Reasons for this include a lack of clarity amongst WASH actors about the Cluster’s purpose and their role within it, poor meeting management, ineffective information management and physical constraints, for example when the affected area is large and/or remote. Several country WASH Clusters have set up information management systems, and there is evidence of improvement in the planning and management of the WASH sector in these countries. There is very little evidence of WASH Cluster activities having a positive impact on the quality of services, and only limited progress has been made in meeting the overall objectives of the cluster approach.

Lessons learned

Although examples of emerging good practice differ across countries and contexts, if lessons learned can be adequately captured and shared there is scope for these to be applied in other contexts. The following list of good practice and lessons learned is meant to be practical and actionable in the short term, as opposed to actions that require significant time to implement.


1. More clarity is needed regarding roles and responsibilities

Cluster partners, including line ministries, international and national NGOs and UN agencies, often lack clarity regarding their roles and responsibilities within the cluster. Reviews frequently reported lack of awareness and understanding of the cluster approach and the wider Humanitarian Reform process at country level, including amongst UN personnel. Lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, coupled with poor monitoring and reporting, has been a major constraint to strengthening accountability in the sector, and could jeopardise the roll-out of the cluster approach. When terms of reference are being developed for cluster actors, NGOs are concerned that they could threaten their independence. To ensure that such issues are addressed in a consistent manner, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) should consider developing policy guidelines in this area.

2. Agree a formal coordination mechanism

Co ordination in Bangladesh


A formal coordination model introduced by the Shelter Cluster in Bangladesh is being promoted by the WASH Sector for rapid-onset emergencies. It includes the following key elements:

•A Strategic Advisory Group (SAG), comprising key actors and accountable to the Cluster members in charge of proposing and formulating Strategic Orientations.

•Early introduction of a Strategic Operational Framework (SOF), with a standard structure.

•Use of Technical Working Groups (TWIGs) to address specific issues.

Source: P. Mwaniki et al., Review of the WASH Cluster in Bangladesh SIDR Response, Global WASH Learning Project, 2008.

3. Coordination mechanisms at national level should be linked with district and field-level coordination mechanisms. The Learning Project review in the DRC found decentralised coordination mechanisms to be a major benefit. Provincial WASH Clusters were often effective in engaging WASH actors on operational issues such as sector coordination, identifying gaps and priorities and addressing technical challenges. 

4. Integrate with existing coordination systems, where appropriate. In Uganda, the fact that the WASH Cluster is an adaptation of the local government coordination system has been beneficial in minimising the number of meetings, avoiding duplication of effort and increasing the potential for sustainability.

 5. Management capacity, relational skills and a good understanding of the WASH sector and country context are vital. In Pakistan, the dedicated Cluster Coordinator is a local, experienced and well-known individual who speaks local dialects. The Coordinator has succeeded in engaging local NGOs at a time when entry into the conflict area by foreigners is severely restricted.

 6. Appoint a full-time Information Manager. In Myanmar, a dedicated Information Manager has been appointed and a web-based information management system developed, enabling agencies to search for and access relevant information for the response, including digitised maps showing operational agencies by geographical area.

 7. Use incentives to encourage agencies to share information. The use and timely dissemination of common analyses are strong incentives for cluster partners to share information. Indeed, the monthly dissemination of synthesised sector achievements in Uganda was greatly appreciated by WASH actors and was a positive way to encourage agencies to contribute to the Cluster.

8. Strengthen cluster partnerships by:

  • Establishing clearly defined and agreed criteria for the prioritisation of funds at country level to improve transparency, and include local NGOs in the process. Joint strategy development, as practiced by the WASH Cluster in the DRC, or the early establishment of a WASH Strategic Operational Framework (SOF), as in Bangladesh, are good practice and should be duplicated.
  • Developing clear and jointly agreed roles and responsibilities to deepen the commitment of cluster actors. Provide cluster actors with additional joint responsibilities (local coordination, technical group coordination, joint project management), whilst acknowledging that government and NGO resources are limited.

 9. Regular cluster lead meetings can serve as an important forum for discussing cross-cutting issues and facilitating dialogue between the Health, Shelter and WASH clusters.

Planning and management

1. Enhance information management. Information management in the context of humanitarian emergencies involves the collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of information. Issues identified through the reviews relate to lack of common formats for data collection (resulting in incompatible data for collation purposes); inconsistent or inaccurate monitoring and reporting; and a reluctance to share information amongst cluster partners. Poor information management means that comprehensive needs assessments and gap analysis are lacking, and monitoring and evaluation are inadequate to support strengthened accountability and evidence-based management.

2. Carry out joint needs assessments. An example of such a joint needs assessment is the Post Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) in Myanmar, which was led by the Tripartite Core Group (comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the UN and the Myanmar government), with technical support from humanitarian and development agencies.

 3. The strategic development process is critical to achieving the objectives of the cluster approach, and may be a useful adjunct to fundraising activities. Good practices observed in the DRC include consultation with Cluster partners, including donors, and the development of a sector strategy which includes emergency response and rehabilitation components, and indicators to measure progress.

Service quality 

1. More emphasis is needed on quality. The Learning Project analysis shows that the main focus of clusters has been the coordination and management of programming. Very little emphasis has been given to the quality of services. The Global WASH Cluster has a number of projects in development to support improved service delivery, covering areas including accountability, capacity-building, disaster risk reduction, the environment, hygiene promotion, WASH technical learning and technical support services.

 2. Consider standard-setting and monitoring at country level and the challenges that this presents. Sphere standards and indicators are often promoted and recognised by agencies and governments during planning. It is important that these standards are later verified and amended, as appropriate. For example, clusters should be careful not to raise expectations that Sphere standards can be met where this is clearly not possible. Expectations must be realistic.

 3. The WASH Cluster has an important role to play in advocacy. For example, the WASH Cluster in Uganda identified water supply, sanitation and hygiene needs in the Karamoja region as a core advocacy concern and was successful in mobilising agencies at national and district levels to support the advocacy campaign.

 4. Capacity-building is critical to improving the effectiveness of the WASH response – the ultimate aim of the cluster approach. It is important that training and capacity-building activities address the needs of agencies, as well as government and/or local partners, supporting sustainability and emergency preparedness. 

Box 2: Emergency Preparedness in Bangladesh


As a result of the experience of working with the WASH Cluster for the cyclone response, the Department of Public Health Engineering can see some advantages to embedding aspects of the coordination, such as the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) and Technical Working Groups (TWIGs), in its preparedness for future emergencies. A learning and emergency preparedness workshop was used to mobilise the sector to strengthen emergency preparedness mechanisms.

Source: P. Mwaniki et al., Review of the WASH Cluster in Bangladesh SIDR Response, Global WASH Learning Project, 2008. .


This article has highlighted a number of examples of emerging good practice in the cluster approach in the WASH sector, many of which could be applied in other contexts to strengthen the emergency response. The analysis also reveals a number of critical issues which must be addressed if the cluster approach is to achieve its objectives in the WASH sector. Continued evaluation of WASH clusters is imperative to ensure that learning is incorporated throughout the roll-out and development of the cluster approach.


Louise Boughen ( and Henri Leturque, The Global WASH Cluster Learning Project, led by Action Against Hunger (ACF-UK).


[1] Guidance Note on Using the Cluster Approach To Strengthen Humanitarian Response, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2006.



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