Unlocking trillions of dollars of value for developing country economies by making clean water, decent toilets and hygiene available for all – WaterAid report

11 July 2021
Girl drinking water
Image: WaterAid/Novo Isioro

11 July 2021, Abuja, Nigeria – 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 from international aid agency, WaterAid.  

The report comes after the UK Government faced wide criticism for revealing plans to slash aid spending on life-saving clean water, hygiene and sanitation programmes in developing countries by 80% earlier this year, even facing a rebellion from their own MPs.

According to Vivid Economics, who conducted the research and analysis that feeds into the report, 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.

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 US$45 billion per year.
  • Ensuring everyone has a tap at home can yield US$37 billion per year.

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 handwashing 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.  

The WaterAid report comes as G20 finance ministers meet and as many developing countries struggle to contain devastating waves of COVID-19 that risk overwhelming already-fragile health services and with weak economies already severely hit by lockdowns and travel restrictions. It calls on governments, donors and businesses to make WASH investments central to fiscal stimulus packages in developing countries in order to strengthen economic recovery and support future pandemic preparedness.  

Evelyn Mere, Country Director, WaterAid Nigeria, 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 side-lined 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.

“There can be no going back to the pre-pandemic business-as-usual. WaterAid is calling on governments, donors and businesses to do the right thing and prioritise the most vulnerable communities by making water, sanitation and hygiene investments central to their COVID-19 response, pandemic-preparedness and green recovery plans.

“In a previous report, Equal to the task: financing for a state of emergency in water supply, sanitation, and hygiene, WaterAid analysed the financing challenges plaguing Nigeria’s WASH sector and based on research and analysis, estimates the total cost of achieving SDG6 in Nigeria to be US$2.1 billion a year in capital, operations, and maintenance. With current public spending, from both government and donors, at only $393 million, there is a massive annual financing gap to address.

“The cost of not investing in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector far exceeds the cost of investing. It is impossible to quantify the impacts of poor water supply and sanitation on livelihoods, health, child development, productivity, education, gender, and security outcomes. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the world, the need for quality water, sanitation, and hygiene services has never been more important.”

Net benefits of achieving universal WASH access
Image: WaterAid

For definitions and methodology see Notes to Editors, below.

In Nigeria, 167 million people (84% of the population) lack basic handwashing facilities, 112 million people (56%) do not have access to basic sanitation, and 60 million (30%) do not have access to basic water supply. At current rates of progress, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 - achieving universal access to safe water and sanitation - will not be met until decades after the deadline of 2030. To get progress on track, the government, businesses and donors must appreciate the value of achieving universal access to vital WASH services and expedite actions that ensure sustainable WASH for all.

The report includes a global and regional analysis of the benefits and costs of investing in WASH. Also included are case studies which show the positive health, economic and environmental benefits of WASH programmes at local levels. 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:  Oluseyi Abdulmalik [email protected] or on +234 803 431 2391

 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 off‑site. 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. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 27 million people with clean water and 27 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit www.wateraid.org, www.wateraid.org/nigeria; follow @WaterAidNigeria, @WaterAid or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wateraid, www.facebook.com/wateraidnigeriawww.facebook.com/wateraidnigeria

* In Nigeria:

  • Only 9% of the population have access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services.
  • 60 million people (30% of the population) lack access to clean water.
  • 112 million people (56% of the population) lack decent toilets.
  • 46 million people (23% of the population) practice open defecation.
  • 167 million people (84% of the population) lack basic handwashing facilities.
  • Only 3% of schools have access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services.
  • Only 4% of healthcare facilities have access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services.
  • Only 2% of parks and markets have access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services.

* 2019 WASH National Outcome Routine Mapping (WASH NORM)


[1] Loukas A, et al. (2016). Hookworm Infection. Nature Reviews Disease Primers. vol 2, no 16088: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27929101/