Does the Australian government no longer give a sh*t?

4 min read
The minor operation theatre in district hospital. Khalanga, Jajarkot, Nepal, Nov 2015.
Image: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya
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Just hours after the Australian federal government announced it would continue to cut foreign aid spending as part of their 2019-20 budget, new data was released that revealed nearly 900 million people worldwide have no water service at their local health care facilities.

The new data, which looks at water, sanitation, hygiene, waste disposal and cleaning in health care centres, also reveals that only one third (36%) of health care facilities in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia have basic hand hygiene services, and that one in ten health care facilities (10%) in the same region have no water service at all.

Despite these challenges facing the region, the Australian government’s budget announcement on Tuesday night included a 5.3% reduction in their investment in Health, Water and Sanitation from $108.1 million in 2018-19 to $102.4 million in 2019-20.

“The continued cuts to Australia’s aid program will have a profound impact on people’s lives at a time when we need strong leadership to solve major regional and global challenges,” WaterAid Chief Executive Rosie Wheen said. “Our government’s short-sightedness is at odds with the reality in countries like Cambodia, where only 55% of public healthcare facilities have improved water services on their premises”.

The cuts are also at odds with the focus Australia has had on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in health care facilities through partnerships with WHO, UNICEF and WaterAid.

“The cuts reinforce a confused approach to development, as on the one hand Australia is supporting leading organisations working on these issues, while on the other we are undermining the capacity of Australia to respond at a regional and global level”. 

The report, released yesterday by WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, also reveals:

  • 896 million people globally have no water service at all at their health care facility.
  • 45% of healthcare facilities in least-developed countries, and one in four globally, do not have a clean source of water on site.
  • One in five health care facilities globally (21%) had no sanitation service at all. In sub-Saharan Africa, only one in four health care facilities (23%) had decent toilets.
  • More than 1.5 billion people globally have no toilets at all at their local health care facility.
  • Globally, one in six health care facilities have no handwashing facilities at all.
  • Also of concern are the number of health facilities without good waste management and general cleaning, which can contribute to the spread of infection. Only one in ten (10%) health care facilities in Oceania had the ability to safely dispose of medical waste.

While the report is a step forward in monitoring progress there are some areas, such the level of handwashing and provision of basic sanitation services in Papua New Guinea, where not enough data was available. WaterAid’s work supporting some of the most remote parts of Papua New Guinea has shown that only 6% of facilities meet basic sanitation that meets the needs of women giving birth. WaterAid is currently working with local government in Papua New Guinea to collect more data to understand the basic water, sanitation and hygiene conditions in their health facilities to address these challenges.

WaterAid Australia Health Advisor Alison Macintyre says:

This data reveals the dire conditions that women often face when trying to safely deliver their babies at a hospital, and where health care professionals must risk their health every day, just to perform their job. These conditions are not only undignified, they are unsafe.

The threat of the rising spread of superbugs in Australia and across the globe cannot be curbed unless clean water is on site, decent toilets are in place, rigorous hygiene procedures are practiced, proper disposal of waste is occurring, and careful cleaning is taking place in every health facility, everywhere.

WaterAid is working in South East Asia and the Pacific to ensure all health care facilities have access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene. The Australian Government has recently supported the political prioritisation of WASH in health care facilities at the highest level but with the current aid cuts, they compromise their role in securing the health and welfare of Australians and our surrounding neighbours.

WaterAid calls upon the Australian Government and all leaders across the Indo-Pacific region to make this a global priority and to dedicate the political prioritisation and financing to ensure every healthcare facility, everywhere, has access to these essentials to good care.

Interviews with Rosie Wheen available upon request.

Media contact: Kevin Hawkins, Communications Manager: (03) 9001 8262 or [email protected]