Endemic issues of sustainability in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector have led to the rapid expansion of ‘system approaches’ for assessing the multitude of interconnected factors that affect WASH outcomes. However, the sector lacks a systematic analysis and characterization of the knowledge base for systems approaches, in particular how and where they are being implemented and what outcomes have resulted from their application. To address this need, we conducted a wide-ranging systematic literature review of systems approaches for WASH across peer-reviewed, grey, and organizational literature. Our results show a myriad of methods, scopes, and applications within the sector, but an inadequate level of information in the literature to evaluate the utility and efficacy of systems approaches for improving WASH service sustainability. Based on this analysis, we propose four recommendations for improving the evidence base including: diversifying methods that explicitly evaluate interconnections between factors within WASH systems; expanding geopolitical applications; improving reporting on resources required to implement given approaches; and enhancing documentation of effects of systems approaches on WASH services. Overall, these findings provide a robust survey of the existing landscape of systems approaches for WASH and propose a path for future research in this emerging field.
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