Universal access to clean water is within reach. How can we achieve it?

An earthquake survivor drinks water from a well in a provisional camp at downtown Port-au-Prince October 30, 2010. The unusually high death rate in Haiti's cholera epidemic is slowing as people become aware of the disease and health experts provide treatment, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday. The United Nations agency's key aim now is to prevent the disease from spreading south to the capital Port-au-Prince and the camps for homeless survivors of the January 12 earthquake, from the northern department of Artibonite where it is concentrated.

Every day 700 children die from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water. Image: REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz.

Keith Schneider
Senior Editor and Chief Correspondent, Circle of Blue
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Fresh Water

  • Despite COVID-19 setbacks, international institutions and service providers have stayed on course to deliver water, sanitation, and hygiene goals.
  • According to the UN, 88% of the world’s population (7 billion people) now have access to clean water in their homes and within a 15-minute walk.
  • Achieving SDG 6 – clean water and sanitation for all – will require global stakeholder collaboration and political commitment.

People devoted to financing water, sanitation and hygiene in developing nations worried for much of 2020. Utility customers stopped paying their water bills. Funders altered their priorities. Heads of state turned their attention to other virus-related emergencies.

But did COVID-19 affect funding enough to slow progress toward universal access to clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene – popularly known as WASH? And if it did, by how much?

Have you read?

The data did not look good. In December 2020, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development reported that because of the pandemic, international investment in water, sanitation and hygiene fell 70% in the first three-quarters of 2020.

Yet, even as the official numbers seemed to point to a potential catastrophe, the actual effects of the pandemic on delivering water and sanitation to people who needed it were not nearly as dire.

Early indications suggest that small water providers coped through the pandemic, according to Safe Water Network, a New York-based nonprofit with programmes in India and Ghana.

“Based on anecdotal data and our experience, we see small water enterprises as a particularly resilient safe water solution during public health crises,” said Gillian Winkler, the group’s vice president for strategic partnerships.

In other words, customers received water. Water treatment plants operated. Managers of sanitation services in informal settlements performed their daily tasks of cleaning toilets and removing waste. Staffing shortages when the virus sickened workers were temporary.

Public-private cooperation is needed

Over the last half century, the WASH sector evolved into a galaxy of projects, programmes, departments, idea centres, utilities, service companies, research groups and consultancies devoted to one objective – delivering clean water, sanitation and hygiene to the developing world.

At the galaxy’s centre is the stellar cluster – development banks, philanthropies, investors and government treasuries – that finance the work. Since 1970, more than $400 billion has been spent on official development assistance, official development finance, government aid, loans and philanthropic grants for WASH in developing nations.

Even with such a considerable sum, the generally accepted narrative of WASH financing is this: it’s not enough. Capital spending for WASH would need to reach $114 billion annually to meet the UN goal of providing universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030, according to a 2016 World Bank study.

That is considerably more than the roughly $20 billion invested annually in WASH in the five years before the pandemic, according to the UN Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS).

In November 2020, the UN said over 700 children die every day from diarrhea caused by unsafe water, sanitation and poor hygiene. Nearly 700 million people still practice open defecation and nearly 400 million children attend schools with no sanitation facilities whatsoever.

“The COVID crisis amplified the existing access issues,” said Lesley Pories, manager of sector strategies at Water.org, a Kansas City based nonprofit WASH financing group. “The most critical challenges, though, are systemic and have been forming over decades: population growth, rural to urban migration and inadequate financing models.”

But viewed from another perspective, $400 billion in aid, assistance, loans and grants produced three results that are scarcely recognized or celebrated in the WASH galaxy.

  • First, it generated a sturdy funding and WASH delivery sector that prodded the world into embracing the consensus goal to provide every person with access to clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene.
  • Second, the $400 billion-plus investment generated an array of WASH delivery projects that are working around the world and delivering measurable results. Between 2000 and 2017, 2.4 billion people gained access to safe water supplies and some 2.1 billion to safe and improved sanitation, according to the UN.
  • Third, an inventive community of finance professionals developed a new promotional message about how to achieve universal WASH. Adequate financing is important, they say, but it’s more essential to: help WASH finance recipients become much more “creditworthy”; and open new paths for raising money and delivering it more quickly to WASH providers.

“There is always private money looking for investment, right?” said Joel Kolker, program manager for the World Bank’s Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership. “The supply of money is interesting. It's important. But in the midst of all that, it misses the key word. Is the service provider creditworthy? Are institutions creditworthy?”

“So, for me,” he said, “the more interesting side is not the supply of capital. Rather, it’s what's going on in creating the demand. That's where we need to go to work.”


What is the World Economic Forum doing about closing the gap between global water demand and supply?

We must build on the momentum

In 2015 the UN attracted accolades for setting Sustainable Development Goal 6 to provide clean water, safe sanitation and access to a handwashing facility to every person on Earth by 2030. That goal is within reach in much of the world.

According to 2017 data from the UN, 88% of the world’s population, or nearly 7 billion people, have access to clean water in their homes and within a 15 minute walk. Nearly 1.8 billion people gained access to basic water supplies from 2000 to 2017.

The global population using safely managed and improved sanitation measured 68% in 2017, or more than 5 billion people.

Another point is that the 2017 data clearly shows that developing nations across Asia, Latin America and North Africa are closing in on meeting universal access goals by 2030.

In Vietnam, for example, 84% of the population had access to safe and improved sanitation in 2017, according to statistics from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply (JMP), up from just over 50% in 2000 – nearly 95% had safe water.

As nations gain wealth, rising from low-income to middle-income, water infrastructure, sanitation infrastructure, and services improve.

Keith Schneider.

The progress developing nations are making in WASH coincides with rising national and personal incomes. As nations gain wealth, rising from low-income to middle-income, water infrastructure, sanitation infrastructure, and services improve.

That essentially leaves the 35 nations of sub-Saharan Africa as the WASH sector’s last big frontier. “Is universal access, reaching 100% for water and sanitation, achievable by 2030?” asked Stef Smits, senior program officer at IRC and a respected WASH researcher. “I think in 95% of the world, that is more or less achievable, based on linear projections of current rates of progress.

“For most countries in Africa, the target to reach universal access to at least basic water, I expect that to be achieved around the year 2040, based on those projections,” Smits added. “For sanitation, it will take longer.”

Taken together, the new trends suggest that the space is steadily shrinking between those who do and those who don’t have ready access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. For half a century the world tread a difficult path. It is now closing in on a momentous human achievement.

This reporting is part of the WASH Within Reach project produced by Circle of Blue in collaboration with the Wilson Center and support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. This independent journalism does not necessarily reflect the views of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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