WaterAid brings sights and smells of Victorian Britain to Parliament as 115,000 call for taps and toilets for all

15 Jul 2015

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WaterAid recreated a Victorian London street scene outside Parliament today, complete with the sights and smells of an era when open sewage ran through the streets, to highlight the charity’s call for the UK Government to do more to end the global water and sanitation crisis.

Barbara Frost, Chief Executive for WaterAid, was joined by supporters of the international charity to hand in the ‘Make It Happen’ petition containing 115,056 names to Baroness Verma, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development.

The petition calls for the UK Government to lead the way in getting safe water and improved sanitation to everyone everywhere.

This year marks 150 years of London’s life-saving sewerage system, which was created following the ‘Great Stink’, when the stench of the polluted Thames was so unbearable, it sent MPs running from the House of Commons clutching handkerchiefs to their faces and spurred them into action to clean up the city.

The opening of the first modern sewerage system in 1865, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, helped prevent cholera outbreaks in London, which had had a devastating impact across the country since 1831, similar to the effect of Ebola in West Africa today.

This marked the start of Britain’s drive to protect public health through good sanitation with similar transformations following across the country as outlined in UK medical journal The Lancet this week.

This year also has a global significance, as the framework for the development priorities for the international community until 2030 is being agreed in September.

WaterAid’s Barbara Frost said: &lsquoOur own history shows how water and sanitation can transform a nation, helping to create a healthier and more prosperous society.

‘Today, 650 million people across the world still lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion have nowhere safe to go to the toilet. Life in a densely populated slum bears far too close a resemblance to UK cities in the 1800s, representing a real and growing threat to global health and stability. Diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation is the second biggest killer of under-fives worldwide, claiming the lives of 1,400 children every single day.

‘The stink may be a bit further from Westminster now; but that’s no reason not to act. With the right political will, we can solve the global water and sanitation crisis. This year we have a unique chance to right this wrong as world leaders agree the new Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty over the next 15 years. Only with investment in sanitation can we achieve a safe and secure future for everyone everywhere.’

More than 70 Members of Parliament and Peers took a walk down the Victorian street, experiencing the sights and unsavoury smells of London in 1858 and hearing accounts from Sir Joseph Bazalgette and characters of the time whose health and wellbeing have been affected by the Great Stink.

Sir William Cash MP, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Water and Sanitation in the Third World, said: ‘I am proud that the UK Government has made a significant commitment to ending global poverty, being the only G8 country to invest 0.7% of our national income in international development.’

‘It is clear that investment in water and sanitation is important to maximise our impact on global health and development, and today’s activity helped bring the issues home.

‘Water and sanitation are crucial for good health, education and the ability to earn a living. Sustained investment in sewerage systems transformed the health of people across the UK and millions of lives were saved, and a more productive workforce created.’

Also present today were some of the 115,056 people who signed WaterAid’s petition who came from all across the country.

Polling run by ComRes in May revealed that the British public thinks the most important sectors we should support through UK aid are water, sanitation and hygiene, and health. However, water, sanitation and hygiene currently receives a small fraction of UK aid funding – just 2%, compared to 20% for health and 13% for education.

WaterAid is calling for this figure to increase in order to achieve improvements in health and other development areas, as access to clean water and improved sanitation are the foundations to climbing out of poverty. For example, for every £1 invested in sanitation there's a return of around £5 in increased productivity.

This week, world leaders are convening in Addis Ababa for the Financing for Development conference, where they will determine how to fund new, ambitious goals for sustainable development over the next 15 years.

WaterAid is hoping to send the message that investment in water and sanitation must be prioritised to ensure efforts to cut poverty are effective. The charity was joined by supporters in calling for the UK Government to:

  • Increase the proportion of aid spent on water, sanitation and hygiene by at least 1% every year over the next parliament to enable the UK to become a leader by 2020.
  • Maximise the impact of UK Aid investments by making sure that water, sanitation and hygiene services are in all health clinics, schools, maternal, newborn and child health strategies, and plans to tackle gender inequality.
  • End aid dependency by working with developing country governments to deliver and sustain water, sanitation and hygiene services as part of sustainable national plans.
  • Support the adoption and implementation of a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation, with targets for universal access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

Sophie Goodall from Brighton said: ‘It’s very easy for us to take clean water and toilets for granted, but for millions of people across the world, these basic necessities are a luxury. It shouldn’t be this way. I’m proud of the UK’s commitment to international development and hope our Government will listen to our call today to take action to ensure everyone everywhere has clean water to drink and somewhere safe to go to the toilet. Together, we can make it happen.’


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For more information or to arrange an interview please contact Laura Crowley at [email protected] / +44 (0)207 793 4965 or email [email protected]. Or call our after-hours press line on 07887 521 552.

Notes to editors

WaterAid works in 37 countries across the world to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in some of the world’s poorest communities. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 23 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 21 million people with sanitation. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAid or @WaterAidPress on Twitter or visit us on Facebook at

  • In 2007 British Medical Journal readers voted the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal – the ‘sanitary revolution’ – as the most important medical advance since 1840.
  • Around 1,400 children die every day from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.
  • More than 650 million people in the world live without safe water. This is roughly one in ten of the world's population.
  • 2.3 billion people live without sanitation; this is 39% of the world's population.
  • For every £1 invested in sanitation, an average of £5 is returned in increased productivity.

The ComRes survey findings

On what the UK public thinks should receive the most investment from the UK foreign aid budget (mean score, scale of 0 to 8 where 8 is least):

  • Health – 3.07
  • Water, hygiene and sanitation – 3.14
  • Food and nutrition – 3.76
  • Humanitarian disasters and emergencies – 3.92
  • Education – 3.93
  • Economic growth and development – 5.85
  • Climate and environment – 6.01
  • Governance and conflict – 6.33

ComRes interviewed 2,010 British adults online between the 14 and 15 May 2015. Data were weighted to be representative of all British adult aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Data tables are available on the ComRes website.