Our international water and sanitation efforts are at a critical junction. The question is, are we ready to change? Can we stand up and chart a new course towards truly transformative investments? Or will we continue to hide behind incomplete data nobody in the sector, or more importantly in communities, around the world believes?

We will know soon enough. In fact, the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda is in London discussing critical human development issues as I write. And in 2014, or early 2015, the water and sanitation sector will publish its monitoring framework for a post-Millennium Development Goal (MDG) world. Teams of consultants, staff from multilateral agencies, a collection of government officials, and non-governmental agency representatives are debating what these indicators could be and what goals the sector should set for a post-2015 world. The deliberations are earnest and thoughtful.

The first real public display of the ideas percolating in these groups came at the Stockholm Water Week in late August. The water working group has clearly and thankfully moved away from the focus on access that has led many to claim that the “water MDG” has been met. Despite the overwhelming evidence that access does not actually mean water flowing regularly—the point of investments in water systems—the criticisms of the “MDG in water success” are loud, clear, and accurate. One needs only to look at the recent EU audit of its “Water Facility” to see how profound the failure to support sustainable water supply and sanitation has been.

The water working group is pushing a range of indicators that, if tracked meaningfully, will force the water sector to shift from simply installing infrastructure to a more considered view of functionality. Indicators being considered include water quality, quantity, financing for ongoing operations and maintenance, critical questions on downtime, and greater clarity on usage levels of current water systems with a focus on equity and inclusion.  
This change in focus will be significant and will force some radical adjustments in sector programming that are long overdue.

First, we will be forced to shift from inputs to outcomes. No longer will it be good enough to count beneficiaries as perhaps the only indicator of organizational impact. Instead, organizations large and small will have to shift their attention to ongoing services—whether water is flowing over time, whether new families moving into an area are able to access these services, whether water points break and are repaired quickly, and whether water quality and quantities are sufficient and reliable enough to actually contribute to better health and well-being.

Second, this will motivate organizations to actually monitor, reflect on their impact, build on the strengths within their programs and rethink the aspects of their work that do not achieve desired results. This will unleash long dormant potential and innovation that could, over time, truly eradicate global water and sanitation poverty. No longer will agencies be able to claim they are “developing their indicators”. Instead, those that choose not to monitor, learn and improve will be left behind in the post-2015 world.

Third, we will see a fundamental shift toward what it costs to actually provide lasting water and sanitation services. Agencies that thrive on simplistic, fundraising-driven messages such as “$25 saves a life” will be forced to change their message and tactics, as the evidence will finally and overwhelmingly show the formula of “small cash for dramatic result” to be ineffective in the field. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, organizations can’t claim that $25 does anything but bang in unsustainable infrastructure. The IRC demonstrates that true costing is in the range of $81-181 per person if we actually want water to flow.

Finally, and most importantly, the new indicators will force a rethink of the numbers of people worldwide who do not have reliable access to flowing water on a daily basis. Currently, the Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation claims that 880 million people worldwide do not have access to improved water supplies. The new post-2015 indicators will alter that number upwards to somewhere between 2-4 billion people without access to flowing, clean water.

The water and sanitation sector has for too long been focused on the wrong targets—simplistic access and beneficiaries. The working group on post-2015 water indicators are charting a new way forward that puts lasting services at its core. The impact will be significant as sector eyes are raised from inputs to outcomes. We as a sector will be forced to re-imagine our programming because we will be held accountable in ways that are only dreamed of now.

And that shift in focus will be truly welcome by all children missing school today as they walk past broken water points on their way to muddy puddles for their family’s water supply—a system that should long since have been abandoned.