Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening

Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening

Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening 2560 1922 Agenda for Change

“The most effective way to teach a complex concept is by identifying what is the most complex [piece], and take the time to understand it, before communicating it to your learners.”

How to explain complex concepts blog


How do we explain complex concepts simply? By focusing on words. There are lots of words that begin with the letter ‘T’ in this close-up image of a dictionary page. (Joshua Hoehne via

By Noah Kaiser, Intern at Agenda for Change

Those of us who work in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) often use big words and acronyms that make it difficult to communicate our ideas. As part of the Agenda for Change Secretariat’s ongoing efforts to help more people learn and share[1], we have been experimenting with helping our Members express their ideas more simply. We were inspired by Randall Munroe’s “Thing Explainer” book, and the related blogs An Overlooked Superpower: How to Explain Complex Concepts and 18 Complicated Scientific Ideas Explained Simply.

Below is my attempt to explain WASH systems strengthening using only simple words. And let me just say: It’s hard to explain this stuff simply!

So, what is a “system” anyway? What makes it “strong”?

A system is like a puzzle, made up of many different pieces that all link together to make a complete picture. If pieces are missing or out of place, the picture doesn’t look right because there are gaps in it.

Because the system has so many parts and so many people involved, everyone needs to work together to make the system strong. In a strong system, people with different jobs and responsibilities know what the big picture should look like and how their piece of the puzzle fits. They understand how they link to the other puzzle pieces around them, those that deal with money, laws, big leaders, and the environment.

What is a water or sanitation system?

A water or sanitation system is also like a puzzle, but it’s a lot harder to complete because the pieces often have different shapes and sizes. Let me use a different example, like a house. My house is made of things that you can and can’t see that make it work when they’re all put together. For example, my lights – I can see the switch, the lamp, and the lightbulb, but I can’t see the electricity. I know it’s there because I pay the bill, and because the lights work when I turn them on. A water or sanitation system is also made up of many things you can and can’t see that all come together to make it work, but the system is much bigger than just one house.

Why does the “system” matter?

Thinking about the system this way is very important because, in many places in the world, people don’t have enough water to drink, cook, bathe, clean, or grow food, or a clean place to go to the bathroom. These places usually have a few puzzle pieces, but they don’t have all of them put together yet, or some pieces might have gone missing over time and were never replaced. This includes within the United States, where I live.

Governments and other people who want to help often spend a lot of time and money working on only one piece of the system, like a water pump. The people who need safe water and toilets every day need other pieces of the system to come together, too.

Who is responsible for finding or fixing the missing pieces?

To understand what pieces are missing, we need to know what the big picture is supposed to look like. This big picture often looks different for each country or town. Money is often a missing piece. Governments and other leaders need to have enough money to train and pay people to install and fix water pumps, so they work well, for example. Another missing piece might be laws. There need to be laws that say people have the right to safe water and toilets, and ways to make people follow those laws.

These missing pieces have major impacts on people’s lives. Without these pieces of the system, it doesn’t take long before people can’t use a pump and have to go back to getting their water from a hole in the ground or buy bottled water. This is much more expensive than it would be to use the water in or near their homes. If they can’t afford to buy water, they often get sick.

A complete puzzle shows an image of a beautiful place or famous piece of art. Agenda for Change is helping to complete a puzzle that shows a picture of all people on earth having safe water to drink and wash hands with, and a safe place to use the toilet, forever. In this strong system, if a water pump, sink, or toilet breaks, there are people, ideas, money, and plans to fix that piece and keep the puzzle whole.

Related to this theme, you might also be interested in this short video from our member WaterAid.

Interested in reading more? Stay tuned for Part 2 of the ‘Simple Explanation’ series, where we will keep building the puzzle one piece at a time, using important pieces called Building Blocks.

[1] See our Communicate to Collaborate series: Part 1 & Part 2

Noah Kaiser is an Intern at Agenda for Change who is passionate about the application of systems-thinking in a global WASH sector. He also works as a teaching assistant and research assistant within the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering, at his alma mater the University of Colorado at Boulder, from which he holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Civil Engineering. Noah’s research and career interests span WASH, rural transportation infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, food security, and the humanitarian aid and development nexus.

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