Centuries of prosperity will be lost if we don’t act now on water and sanitation

Posted On: 
9th July 2018

As world leaders meet at the UN this week to discuss progress, let’s remember that we all have a role to play in ensuring global progress on water, sanitation and hygiene, says Savio Carvalho, Global Campaign Director, WaterAid.

Djibril, schoolboy pictured in his classroom and writing on a notebook at school, Region of Mopti, in Mali
Credit: 
WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

In 2015, when 193 countries adopted the sustainable development goals, they all became jointly responsible to fulfilling the promise to transform the lives of people around the world by 2030. They agreed to tackle extreme poverty, inequality, and other human rights violations: addressing water and sanitation problems is crucial to fulfil this promise.

With such great responsibility, comes accountability. More than two years after the targets were set, it is time to review what has been done and to act with a sense of urgency on where we are falling short.

At WaterAid, we calculated how long it would take for various countries to achieve SDG 6 – to deliver universal access clean water and decent sanitation. We were shocked at the results. Some countries are centuries removed from achieving universal access to just basic water and sanitation; the UN targets are aimed beyond those basic services. Meanwhile, around the world, close to 300,000 children under 5 continue to die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's nearly 800 children a day – think about it - one child every two minutes.

From 6 to 19 July, world leaders will gather at the UN to discuss the progress that has been made, and what still needs to be done. But stock-taking is not enough; it is time to remind countries of their promises and obligations, and to hold them accountable when they don’t deliver.

Governments, donors and the private sector need to prioritise water and sanitation: each year that a nation is not able to provide clean water and decent toilets to its population, is one year in which citizens are denied better health and greater prosperity.

The SDGs are an action plan for people, prosperity and planet: Peaceful and stable societies are formed when people have access to health and education, of which water, sanitation and hygiene is an enabler. You can’t study when you’re thirsty, or when you are tired from walking hours every day collecting water from a far-away source.

Prosperity increases with access to water, sanitation and hygiene, known collectively as WASH, as it connects different sectors: for every £1 invested in WASH at least £4 is returned in increased productivity, primarily based on improved health and more time to work or study.

Sustainable change requires setting up climate-resilient services, managing our planet’s resources in a responsible way and minimising the effects of climate change - floods and droughts amplify the effects of water problems for governments already struggling to provide basic water and sanitation services to their people.

Yet, there is a global water and sanitation crisis. UN Secretary General António Guterres identifies Goal 6 on water, sanitation and hygiene as a key area experiencing “significant” resourcing gaps, and World Bank research has found that there is a financing gap of US$ 114 billion per annum on WASH Governments, donors, and the private sector need to work towards closing this gap so that countries can build sustainable services for water and sanitation: a crucial element to fulfilling the promises made in 2015.

When the UK government supported the adaptation of goals, it entered into a commitment and now it has to deliver on its responsibilities both overseas and domestically.

The UK is well placed to become a global leader on water and sanitation, and to galvanise global progress. However, more ambition is needed.

Only 2% of the UK’s bilateral aid budget is invested in water, sanitation and hygiene. This should be increased, to bring it into line with other key areas of development. Currently education receives 7%, and health 13%. We hope that this need for more investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is reflected in the Department for International Development’s imminent spending review.

As far as the domestic situation is concerned, last week’s civil society “Measuring Up” report reflecting on progress in the UK, shows mixed success. There is much to celebrate. For example, the UK has been found to provide near universal water and sanitation coverage domestically- although this comes with a warning that this masks challenges in access and affordability experienced by some of the most vulnerable, including people who are homeless, or residing in overcrowded spaces. More generally on inequality, the report found that the most vulnerable people in the UK are increasingly being left behind. Therefore, there is progress to be made both at home, as well abroad, as the UK prepares to be reviewed against the goals at next year’s UN High Level Political Forum.

So, as world leaders meet and discuss progress, let’s remember that we all have a role to play in ensuring global progress on water, sanitation and hygiene. Now is the time for Governments, donors, and the private sector, to step up.