Fragmented and underinvested – UK must show leadership in addressing the global water and sanitation crisis

Posted On: 
12th July 2019

The global water and sanitation crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not just in physical availability. To achieve transformative change and secure universal access by 2030 a political step-change on WASH globally is required, says Bethan Twigg, Advocacy Coordinator, WaterAid.

37 year old Modinatu Sofola looks out into the new apartments from her home in the slum of Ajeromi Ifelodun in Lagos, Nigeria - September 2016.

The UK is joining other governments at the UN in New York within the next week to assess its progress in helping to reduce inequality by 2030. At this meeting, the UK will be challenged to demonstrate leadership in an agenda they were instrumental in defining.

But there one issue in particular that is thwarting the ambition.

The importance of universal access to clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene (collectively known as WASH) cannot be overstated. It underpins the entire development agenda and stretches across health, nutrition, education and equality, as a fundamental building block to a prosperous future. Without these three essential human rights, an individual – and country - cannot thrive.  

Recent figures from WHO and UNICEF do point to signs of progress. 2.1 billion people gained access to at least a basic toilet since 2000, and between 2015 and 2017 the number of people without access to clean water fell from 1 in 9, to 1 in 10.

But unless we can secure access to WASH for everyone, everywhere, almost every Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) will be unachievable. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “If we remain off track to deliver on Goal 6 then we jeopardise the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development… We must tackle weak funding, planning, capacity and governance of water and sanitation services as a top priority.”

The World Bank estimates that providing safely managed services for water and sanitation targets will require an additional $114bn per year in the Global South.

But WASH challenges are increasing daily. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation is driving up demand for water, and climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts. In India, Chennai has witnessed first-hand what growing water scarcity looks like when just four weeks ago they ran out of water.

The global water and sanitation crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not just in physical availability. To achieve transformative change and secure universal access by 2030 a political step-change on WASH globally is required.

Globally, the UK’s support for WASH is positive, reaching 80 million people with water and sanitation since 2011. The Department for International Development (DFID) is also taking welcome steps towards ensuring their existing WASH programming is sustainable.

The problem is one of scale and ambition, with the UK investing just 2% of bilateral aid in WASH. This is worryingly below what’s needed for real progress. The World Bank says there is a financing gap of US$ 114 billion per annum on WASH. Imagine what could be achieved if the UK’s 2% WASH investment was brought in line with spending in other core sectors, such as 15% of official development assistance (ODA) invested in health, and 9% on education?

Financing alone is not a golden bullet that will solve the WASH crisis, but it is a strong indicator of the government's priorities and DFID must address this financing gap immediately.

Alongside investment, the UK government must find a way to effectively integrate its work on WASH across the UK aid budget and departments. A 2019 National Audit Office report states the responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of aid spending is “fragmented across government” and that it is unclear which department has overall oversight over the aid strategy.

Different parts of DFID, including WASH, gender, health and education, don’t always work well together. The UK needs to find solutions for this lack of coordination, such as ring-fenced funding to help promote integrated working. And globally, far more investment in infrastructure, including WASH, is needed now to adapt to the climate crisis. Here, the UK should lead by example,

The government also needs to improve its own assessments of targets and indicators. After all, why have goals if you can’t measure your success or know where to improve? The UK should also support other countries to develop and implement their own plans on WASH, and on other goals.

This is an opportunity for a dramatic and far-reaching political step change. The gathering at New York represents a chance for the UK to show leadership on goal 6 to bring sustainable safe water and sanitation to all by 2030 and  indeed the whole SDG framework.

Will the UK government step up?