Time to step up on water and sanitation

By Barbara Frost, Chief Executive, WaterAid


24 Mar 2014

To understand the importance of next month’s High Level Meeting on Sanitation and Water for All, we need to look back at the two years since the last meeting.

In April 2012, government ministers from across the globe sat together and pledged stronger commitments to bring safe water and sanitation to those without.

Since then, the world has been gripped by unusual and often devastating weather patterns. We’ve seen drought in southern Africa, Australia and parts of the United States, and dramatic flooding in the UK, Central Europe, India and Indonesia. All of these make creating and maintaining safe drinking water supplies and sanitation systems more challenging, particularly in developing countries where infrastructure is fragile and easily destroyed.

We’ve seen the eradication of polio in India through a massive vaccination effort – a stunning public health victory, but threatened by the country’s struggle to improve safe water and sanitation services, since polio thrives in their absence.

And, despite the world’s best efforts, some 768 million people are still without safe drinking water. Another 2.5 billion do not have access to decent toilets.

These basic services could save the lives of 700,000 children every year who are dying of diarrhoeal illnesses linked to unsafe water, bad sanitation and poor hygiene.

Women walking for water in Madagascar

It’s time to eliminate long journeys for water like this woman’s in Madagascar. Photo credit: Ernest Randriarimalala, WaterAid

So we look to the 11 April meeting, just ahead of the World Bank Spring Meetings, with strong expectations. This is our moment to convince the international community to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere, forever, and within our lifetimes.

We cannot eliminate extreme poverty without safe drinking water and sanitation. It is a crisis of incredible proportion, and it needs to be addressed now.

This year is a critical time for progress in water and sanitation. The United Nations is in the final stage of outlining its agenda for reducing international poverty beyond 2015. The original UN Millennium Development Goals run out next year and will be replaced by a set of sustainable development goals. Water and sanitation must be among those goals.

There is momentum. We have had calls to action from the UN Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson, and the President of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the need for access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene “a matter of justice and opportunity.”

But this fight cannot be an exercise of words alone. The High-Level Meeting cannot become a place for lofty promises that are soon forgotten.

We need more commitment and accountability from both donors and developing countries to make this happen. We need to work with public and private partners on both financing and delivery, to make sure investment in good work is sustainable and long-lasting.

The gap to bridge is massive. In southern Africa alone, the gap in financing to put countries back on track on water and sanitation amounts to $3.6 billion US per year.

That means 36 million people in southern Africa who should have received clean water by 2015 will miss out, and another 66 million will go without sanitation.

There is a tremendous economic cost to this, from lost productivity and missed work and school days stemming from illness or time spent searching for water or a safe place to defecate. These costs and others are estimated at $260 billion each year.

Safe water and sanitation mean better health, a better chance at survival for mothers and their newborns, better education, better nutrition and stronger resistance to illness. They also create a safer environment for women and girls, by removing the vulnerability that comes with long walks for water or open defecation.

All of us at WaterAid are inspired every day by stories of lives changed by a simple water tap or latrine. Everything starts with water and sanitation. Let’s not miss this chance to do the right thing.

This article originally appeared on Sanitation and Water For All (SWA), a global partnership of over 90 developing country governments, donors, civil society organizations and other development partners working together to towards a common vision of universal access to safe water and adequate sanitation.