Bring trillions of dollars to developing country economies by making clean water, decent toilets and hygiene available for all - report 

Posted by
Lisa Martin
6 July 2021
Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash hands to prevent COVID-19 having learned about importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh. 2020
Image: WaterAid/ HSBC/ DRIK/ Parvez Ahmad

Developing country economies would be boosted by trillions of dollars over the next two decades if clean water, toilets and hygiene were brought to everyone, reveals a new report out today from international aid agency WaterAid.   

Economic case for WASH report infographic
For definitions and methodology see Notes to Editors, below.

This report is being published just days before G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meet in Venice to discuss the best approach to ensuring global economic prosperity in the wake of the pandemic and in the face of climate change. 

Ensuring everyone everywhere has access to even basic water, hygiene and toilets – which could mean a well within a 15 minute walk, a household toilet and soap and water to wash hands with – would bring returns of up to 21 times their cost, found Vivid Economics, who conducted the research and analysis that feeds into the report. 

Mission critical: invest in water, sanitation and hygiene for a healthy and green economic recovery – shows that reaching the levels of access defined by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals could unlock huge sums: 

  • Ensuring everyone has a toilet where waste is safely managed can yield US$86 billion per year in greater productivity and reduced health costs amongst other benefits. 
  • Ensuring everyone has somewhere to wash their hands with soap and water can yield $US45 billion per year. 
  • Ensuring everyone has a tap at home can yield $US37billion per year. 

WaterAid is calling on G20 Finance Ministers to ensure WASH is central to plans for developing countries to recover economically from the pandemic and protect themselves against the impacts of climate change.  

Investment in WASH within healthcare centres, for example, was highlighted by the G20 as an essential measure for protecting the world’s poorest health systems in a declaration in May. This requires an investment of $6.5 billion – which finance ministers could discuss providing this week.   

They are also set to discuss debt relief and the issue of IMF funding in the form of Special Drawing Rights (back-up funds) for the world’s poorest countries – whose economies have been impacted disastrously by the pandemic – which could enable spending on essential and economically critical public services like WASH. 

WaterAid’s report also shows that investing in WASH is crucial for building climate resilience; a key priority for the G20 and COP26 set to take place in Glasgow in November. 

Other key findings of the report include: 

  • Protecting water and sanitation infrastructure from worsening flooding is one of the best ways we can protect the world’s most vulnerable people from the impacts of climate change - for every US Dollar spent on strategic flood resilience upgrades, US$62 in flood restoration costs can be avoided, as well as preventing life-threatening contamination of drinking water sources. 
  • The provision of even just a community water pump or well can give women and girls the equivalent of 77 million working days per year that they currently spend collecting water; whilst upgrading to a tap in every house would free-up 122 million working days that are annually stolen from them. The impact on the lives, prospects and freedom of women and girls, as well as a country’s economic success, would be transformative.  
  • Achieving the UN targets on sanitation could prevent up to six billion cases of diarrhoea and 12 billion cases of parasitic worms between 2021 and 2040. Diarrhoea kills more than 70,000 children each year, and hookworm – just one type of parasitic worms - affects 500 million people each year, meaning that every year four million years are lost to people through ill-health or shortened lives.1  
  • Universal access to hand washing can reduce cumulative infections in a respiratory disease epidemic even if no other actions are taken - saving days that COVID-19 shows can be vital for response and containment efforts to limit the spread of infections.   

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive, WaterAid, said:   

“Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is mission-critical not only to ending this pandemic and preventing the next but to bouncing back economically by unlocking trillions of dollars of value for the global economy.  

“Water and sanitation have been sidelined for far too long, their value overlooked, trapping millions in poverty. Our research shows that it’s an extremely cost-effective investment. Ensuring everyone everywhere has access to even basic water, hygiene and toilets would bring returns of up to 21 times the cost.  

“As the G20 look to shape a stronger, sustained recovery, investing in water and sanitation is, without a doubt, one of the best buys they could make.”  

For definitions and methodology see Notes to Editors, below. 

The report includes a global and regional analysis of the benefits and costs of investing in WASH. Also included are case studies from Burie, Ethiopia, and Shyamnagar, Bangladesh which show the positive health, economic and environmental benefits of WASH programmes at local level. They have strengthened the resilience of marginalised communities to the impacts of climate change, with particular benefits for women and girls.  

Caroline Vexler, Senior Economist at Vivid Economics, who led analysis that fed into the report, said:   

“Our global benefit-cost analysis demonstrates that investing in WASH is a triple win: it can unlock billions in economic opportunities and health savings at relatively low cost, it can address key objectives of stimulus spending post-COVID and can build resilience to increasing global risks.”   


Notes to Editors:  

For more information, please contact:  Lisa Martin [email protected], Maya Verber [email protected] or Anna Ford  [email protected] or call the 24 hour press line
+44 (0)7887 521 552 [email protected]   

Methodology Mission critical: investing in water, sanitation and hygiene for a healthy and green recovery assesses three scenarios of global WASH coverage. Each scenario assumes that the coverage level described is achieved by 2030 and is maintained through 2040. These are as follows:  

1. Basic service: The first scenario assesses the costs and benefits of achieving universal access to at least basic services. Basic water technologies include boreholes and tube wells to provide drinking water from an improved source, provided collection time is not more than 30 minutes for a roundtrip, including queuing. Basic sanitation technologies focus on provisioning pit latrines facilities that are not shared with other households. Basic hygiene provides handwashing facilities available to each household.  

2. Safely managed service: The second scenario assesses the costs and benefits of achieving universal access to safely managed services, a higher quality WASH service than the basic scenario. For water services, this means access to an improved water source which is located on the premises, available when needed and free from faecal and priority chemical contamination. The technology to achieve this is piped water supply. Safely managed sanitation requires the use of improved facilities which are not shared with other households and where excreta is safely disposed in situ or transported and treated offsite. The technologies build on the household-level provision of latrines achieved in the basic scenario to provide sewage systems, septic tanks and the management and treatment of faecal matter.  

3. Climate-resilient and safely managed service: Multiple climate change-related hazards threaten the reliability of WASH services, including flooding, drought and sea-level rise. The analysis focuses on flooding as the most prevalent and damaging climate risk to WASH infrastructure. Severe flooding can render WASH services temporarily unusable and increase population exposure to waterborne diseases like cholera. A lack of WASH services also reduces local capacity to provide emergency services in the wake of a disaster. The third scenario assesses the costs of strategically upgrading safely managed service infrastructure to be flood-resilient in flood-prone areas, against the benefits of reducing flood service disruptions and flood damages to infrastructure. Although the climate-resilient scenario focuses on upgrading safely managed infrastructure, it is important to note that elements of basic service infrastructure can also be made more climate-resilient. The analysis focuses on increasing the resilience of safely managed infrastructure for two reasons: firstly, because achieving universal access to safely managed services is the target of SDG 6 and secondly, because the analysis relies on recent research on the costs of climate-resilient infrastructure, which also focuses on safely managed services.  

A more detailed description of the scenarios, data sources and key assumptions can be found in the methodology appendix on page 39 of the report.  

WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people.