WaterAid: Improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene is an international development 'fundamental'

Posted On: 
11th July 2017

Tim Wainwright, the newly appointed Chief Executive of WaterAid, speaks to PoliticsHome about the interconnectedness between improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene and many of the world's most prevalent issues.

“Trying to do development without WASH present, it’s like building a brick wall with no foundation,” Wainwright reflects.

Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is undoubtedly, like so many things in Western society, something we all take for granted every day. But startlingly, 2.4 billion people – that’s one third of the world’s population - don’t have access to a decent toilet. Some 663 million people live without clean water. And 289,000 children under five die each year due to diarrhoeal diseases, prompted by, you guessed it, poor water and sanitation.

It’s no wonder then that Tim Wainwright, the newly appointed Chief Executive of WaterAid, believes that improving access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, hereforth known as WASH, is “fundamental” to international development: essential to good health and productivity, but also to effective healthcare, education and even child nutrition.

“Trying to do development without WASH present, it’s like building a brick wall with no foundation,” Wainwright reflects. “If a child is eating well, but has constant diarrhoea because they’re drinking dirty water, and the water is dirty because there aren’t adequate toilets, then they are unlikely to absorb the nutritional benefits from the food and that will keep them out of school, affecting their educational progression.”

It isn’t a leap to realise that children who are thirsty at school, or rising early each morning to collect water, or constantly ill from dirty water and poor sanitation are unlikely to be able to attend lessons regularly, and that hospitals and clinics without a reliable supply of clean water will struggle to serve patients and prevent the spread of infection.

“So, it’s an absolute basic,” he continues. But while progress has been made, “it is a shockingly high problem.

“I think most people would agree that it hasn’t had the priority it should have had," he says.

Wainwright is well placed to make such an assertion. He has spent more than 20 years working in international development.  During that time, he helped work on the relief effort in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which left around 250,000 people dead, while he was working in Asia for Oxfam. He spent the last six and a half years as CEO of ADD International, an ally to the global disability movement.

His many years’ experience has led him to the conclusion that it is through improving access to WASH that many of the central issues in international development can be overcome. But why then is the issue not front and centre of the global discussion?

The answer is that sanitation is hard to talk about, and integrating access to water and sanitation with other development issues including healthcare, education and nutrition is not yet routine – though it seems obvious that maternal and newborn health gains rely in no small part on good access to water, sanitation and good hygiene in the places where women give birth, and that girls are more likely to miss lessons during menstruation if their schools don’t have clean, private toilets that lock and a place to wash properly when needed.

“It’s just not had quite the focus that it’s needed over the years,” Wainwright says. “It’s not been ignored, and if you look at our own Department for International Development, they delivered some credible work… But it’s only 2% of their overall budget."

Wainwright calls it an extremely effective use of aid; WaterAid often cites World Bank economists’ findings that for every £1 spent, at least £4 is delivered in productivity and other savings. Yet other areas, like health and education, receive far more in funding.

And indeed improving the profile, understanding and integration of WASH is an issue that Wainwright would like to prioritise as he beds in at WaterAid.

 “Mainly it’s because other areas are seen as more exciting and tangible. People have built roads and schools and that’s just been more glamorous than toilets. We try to make toilets glamorous here,” he jokes.

Wainwright joined WaterAid on 2 May, succeeding Dame Barbara Frost as Chief Executive. Prior to beginning in the post, accompanied by Dame Barbara, he visited WaterAid’s programme in Mozambique. It’s not taken long for Wainwright to be incorporated into the role, having received an “incredible welcome” from the organisation.

Wainwright was in attendance when all 194 member states committed to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, which included a pledge to ensuring “everyone, everywhere” have access to WASH by 2030. For WaterAid, this means working with a wide range of partners to ensure that governments everywhere keep that commitment and make water and sanitation a political priority with appropriate funding.

“It is a challenging target and it requires action from governments in both the north and the south,” Wainwright says. “It requires the private sector to play its role and we want to give citizens a voice. We want to see citizens in poorer countries around the world calling their own governments to account in terms of the provision of these basic services.”

As for the UK’s role, Wainwright champions Britain’s stance as a world leader on the international development stage. But he would like to see the Department for International Development increase its allocated budget for WASH from 2%, incorporate it into their education and health interventions overseas, and use Britain’s not inconsiderable global standing to push the agenda.

“One thing WaterAid believes very strongly is that the solutions here come from working through the existing systems in countries around the world that deliver water and sanitation. We think that’s very important," he says.

“And finally, I think that on the global stage, Britain has a very big voice in the international development debate. They could also be using their role to highlight the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene to others, to the multilateral agencies, the UN, World Bank, and so on that they have a lot of influence over, as well as exercising influence in the countries in which DFID and the Foreign Office are working.”

WaterAid, a not-for-profit organisation, was set up in 1981. It has fundraising offices in seven countries from Australia to Sweden, and operates in nearly 30 countries worldwide. It works in partnership with local organisations, governments and citizens to help poorer communities set up water supplies and toilets, as well as in hygiene promotion including handwashing with soap, and – just as importantly -- to advocate for government prioritisation for these services.

WaterAid’s work grapples with some of the issues facing the global community as a whole: Climate change, for instance, is felt through water – too much, too little, polluted or saline, or at the wrong time – and safeguarding access to clean water and good sanitation is essential in helping poor communities adapt to the impact of climate change.

Another major issue is the role of water and sanitation in healthcare, and ensuring it is included in global plans to combat antimicrobial resistance, to ensure that clean water, better sanitation and rigorous hygiene are in place to help prevent infection and minimise the need for antibiotics.

Then there is the ever-growing challenge of safe disposal and treatment of excrement in a rapidly urbanising world -- in the development world, a challenge known as faecal sludge management, which Wainwright points out is an increasing threat.

The interconnectedness between improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene and many of the world's most prevalent issues seems increasingly undeniable.

"If you build your development wall with a big aid budget, and you haven’t worried about WASH, then the wall will fall down,” Wainwright says.