Low-income communities lack access to clean water. It’s time for change

Access to clean water is a human right.

Access to clean water is a human right. Image: Unsplash/Mélissa Jeanty

Bincheng Mao
Global Shaper, New York Hub, New York Hub
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  • The United Nations recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.
  • But one third of people worldwide still lack access to safe drinking water and 3 billion people do not have hand-washing facilities.
  • Public and private sectors should invest in water infrastructure to expand clean water access to every person worldwide.

Clean water should not be a privilege of the affluent. As something integral to our human way of life, access to clean water not only protects individual health but also allows industries such as agriculture, tourism and manufacturing to flourish.

These economic activities, in turn, enable the production of life-saving food, in addition to creating jobs that provide income and dignity for millions.

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The international community has widely acknowledged the significance of clean water. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the historic Resolution 64/292, and not a single member state voted against it.

It explicitly recognizes a “human right to water and sanitation” and declares water “essential” for the realization of all human rights.

Clean water access varies across communities

Despite the international acknowledgment, comprehensive progress on clean water access has been elusive.

According to a 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) report on water inequalities, one in every three people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, while 3 billion people do not have hand-washing facilities – a basic sanitation need.

This situation disproportionately affected vulnerable communities such as those with low-income levels.

It is worth emphasizing that this gap is not only occurring in low-income communities in developing countries but also those in wealthier countries.

Share of population with access to clean drinking water facilities, 2020
Share of population with access to clean drinking water facilities, 2020 Image: Our World in Data

The United States, a highly advanced economy, has approximately 2.2 million people living without running water and basic indoor plumbing.

A 2019 study found that households without running water were more likely to include people of colour and have a low level of disposable income.

Such inequalities in clean water access are causing a humanitarian crisis across the world, demanding swift action.

Invest in water and sanitation services

The water crisis has resulted in pressing humanitarian consequences, particularly the spread of diseases due to the lack of sanitation.

Without access to safe and clean water, diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and schistosomiasis can often take hold and undermine people’s health. Simple preventative measures such as hand-washing, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, also become a luxury without water.

Such a predicament presents a serious challenge to households with lower income, for medical treatments for any of these diseases are substantial, and even unbearable, financial burdens that further perpetuate poverty.

Therefore, it is necessary to provide a mix of sanitation services as soon as possible. One of these options for people without access to large amounts of water is a “tippy tap”.

When I was a volunteer for children in West Africa a few years ago, I observed first-hand this highly effective facility being built from routine materials in a matter of minutes.

With one piece of soap, a water container hung above the ground, and a foot stick on the ground, a person gets a small amount of water and soap by stepping on the foot stick connected to the device.

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A tippy tap provides an economical and reliable way for hundreds of people to wash their hands. Countries, civil society organizations and local communities should collaborate on promoting this method across the world to help those in need.

In addition, it is also crucial for both the public sector and private sector to encourage innovations in sustainable sanitation services, particularly when it comes to the treatment of human excreta.

In areas with insufficient sanitation, pathogens in excreta can spread diseases such as typhoid, and hepatitis, highlighting the need for effective treatment.

There have been promising outcomes in faecal sludge management systems that can transform human excreta into biomass fuels.

People running the treatment plant can then sell these fuels to offset the costs of operations. More innovations like this are necessary for the well-being of rural communities with limited water at the time.

Private finance can contribute to water infrastructure

Traditionally, providing water services is the responsibility of the public sector, but private capital should play a role today.

As public finance may struggle to meet the needs of all people, corporations and private individuals can make investments toward constructing and repairing water infrastructure.

In Kenya, the World Bank facilitated the Eastern African country to raise $25 million in private capital as of 2018 to expand water and sanitation services.

These commercial finance initiatives greatly improved water security in a nation that was fraught with droughts and floods.

To attract private finance, one effective way is to support loans through credit guarantees to cover a portion of risks for lenders, as the US did in the case of Kenya.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

At the time, the US Agency for International Development set up a credit guarantee scheme that ensured local lenders often shouldered less than 50% of the risks. The programme proved successful in facilitating the commercial financing aspect of the overall investment.

As an increasing number of multinational corporations adopt environmental, social and governance standards, investing in green and climate-resilient water infrastructure provides a way for these businesses to make good on their pledges.

Not only can these projects help create employment opportunities and alleviate poverty, but they can also reduce the disproportionate impact of climate change on the water supplies for the most vulnerable people.

Make clean water accessible to all

Having access to clean water empowers disadvantaged people, particularly those in low-income communities, to fulfil their full potential.

Both the public and private sectors should invest in water infrastructure that expands clean water access to every individual as a human right.

Only by joining forces, can the momentous task of resolving present water inequalities be a success.

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