Wising up about water

'Water for development' is the theme of this year's World Water Week in Stockholm. WaterAid's Chief Executive Barbara Frost tells us why a country can only develop fully if it has access to water and sanitation.


24 Aug 2015

Water. Without it, nothing would happen. It is a prerequisite for life; it underpins every element of human development. Without it we cannot produce food, harness energy or sustain a productive economy. Yet there is no other resource so much taken for granted.

'Water for development' is the theme of this year's World Water Week in Stockholm. We all know a country can only develop fully if all of its population has access to water and sanitation. Taps and toilets transform people's life chances leading to better health, education and economic opportunities. They are fundamental to eradicating extreme poverty and to the empowerment of women and girls.

Yet in this hyper connected, tech-savvy, fast-moving world, the figures show we are still not giving water and sanitation the prioritisation they require. More than 650 million people – around one in ten of the global population – lack access to improved water, and one in three does not have access to basic sanitation.

Rapidly developing economies are increasingly realising that a healthy workforce – along with the boosted productivity that brings – and an economy that is attractive to investors, are impossible without basic services such as drinking water and sanitation. The total global economic losses due to inadequate water supply and sanitation services have been estimated at $260 billion a year.

Getting reliable access to safe water and sanitation

On a recent visit to Madagascar I saw an example of how meeting this basic need can put a community on the road to development. I travelled to the rural town of Mahasolo which lies about 100 km north of the capital Antananarivo. Until 2012 none of its 11,000 inhabitants had access to clean water and half the population had to go to the toilet in the open. On average the girls in the village would spend around six hours a day collecting water, leaving little – if any – time to go to school. It's a familiar story across the rest of the country, where nearly half of Madagascar's people live without access to safe water and a decent toilet.

A girl washing her hands.
13-year-old Francine washes her face at the handwashing station at her school in the Menabe region of Madagascar.

Thankfully for the people of Mahasolo that's now changed. With the help of WaterAid's local partners, taps and toilets have been installed, and the improvements are clear. Girls are now able to go to school, and they told me how they were able to manage their periods and menstrual hygiene now that the schools had good facilities and a supply of sanitary products. Women have more free time to start their own businesses and earn a living, and the risk of waterborne diseases has decreased. The town now has greater economic freedom and prosperity than it did three years ago. Mahasolo's story is an echo of every community around the world that gains sustainable, reliable access to safe water and sanitation.

Key discussions at Stockholm World Water Week

Madagascar is a long way from Stockholm, but these are themes WaterAid will visit over the course of the week. In panels on Water for women, and how to address gender equality in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we'll examine how women and girls are disproportionately affected by the water and sanitation crisis.

We will explore the important role water and sanitation play in health with the launch of a new World Health Organization strategy on tackling neglected tropical diseases including blinding trachoma and intestinal worms, through action on water, sanitation and hygiene – a strategy which WaterAid, alongside other organisations, has played a key role in developing.

We'll hear from developing world governments and the Sanitation and Water for All coalition on how to build water and sanitation systems that last, and the roadblocks along the way. And we'll discuss with our partners and peers some of the new advances and challenges in our work, now spanning 37 countries, including how to make our programmes more resilient to the increasing challenges of climate change, and how to incorporate mobile phone technology into mapping water points to make our work more sustainable.

This year's Stockholm World Water Week is the 25th time the city has hosted this important week of examination, reflection, knowledge-sharing and celebration of innovation. The theme 'Water for development' also reflects the critical timing around how our world approaches development and the fight to end extreme poverty.

Keeping our promises

Next month world leaders will meet at the UN General Assembly in New York to endorse a new set of goals which, if met, will transform the world over the next 15 years. The new (SDGs) will commit the global community to ensuring universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

Achieving this goal will play a fundamental role in consigning extreme poverty to the history books.

We have made progress since that first World Water Week in 1990. More than 90% of the world's population now has access to an improved source of drinking water, and 2.1 billion people have gained access to basic toilets.

But we know this progress has been uneven, leaving out the poorest, the most remote, and older, disabled and other marginalised people. There is so much more to be done.

Three children walking and carrying buckets on their heads.
Children on their way back to school with buckets of dirty water in the Moramanga region of Madagascar.

This year represents a unique opportunity for the global community to commit afresh to do more and do it better. Governments, the private sector and civil society all have critical roles to play.

Change takes time. The global community has just 15 years to keep a promise to the world's poorest and most vulnerable people that no longer will their health, dignity and prosperity be limited for lack of water, basic toilets and good hygiene.

Stockholm World Water Week represents a chance to renew our energy to keep these promises and redouble our efforts to reach everyone everywhere by 2030.

Barbara Frost tweets as @barbarafrost

Keep up to date with events at Stockholm World Water Week at