As the historic United Nations Water Conference commences today – the first in nearly 50 years – the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) call on all nations to radically accelerate action to make water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) a reality for all.
The numbers are staggering – around the world, 2 billion people lack safe drinking water and 3.6 billion people – almost half the world’s population – use sanitation services that leave human waste untreated.
Millions of children and families do not have adequate WASH services, including soap to wash their hands. The consequences can often be deadly.
Each year at least 1.4 million people – many of them children – die from preventable causes linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation. Right now, for example, cholera is spreading in countries that have not had outbreaks in decades.
Half of all health care facilities – where proper hygiene practices are especially critical – lack water and soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizing solution.
The social and economic consequences of inadequate water and sanitation services are also devastating. Without these critical services, people fall ill, children miss out on learning – especially girls – and entire communities can be displaced by water scarcity.
At the same time, the benefits of access to safe water and sanitation, for individuals and societies alike, are beyond measure. These services are key to healthy development in children and for sustaining wellbeing as adults. They also offer a pathway to broader social and economic progress by supporting community health and productivity.
From solutions to actions
All of us have the right to safe water, proper sanitation and hygiene, yet so many go without. Collectively, the world needs to at least quadruple the current rates of progress in order to achieve universal access to safely managed WASH services by 2030. Progress needs to be even faster in fragile contexts and the poorest countries, to protect people’s health and futures.
Fortunately, we have viable solutions and an historic opportunity to turn them into action.
We urge governments to take the following actions with support from UN agencies, multilateral partners, the private sector and civil society organizations:
Government leadership to drive change:
- Develop a plan for increasing political commitment to safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene, including outreach to leaders at all levels of government and engaging with civil society groups;
- Develop a strategy for strengthening governance and institutions required to deliver these services, such as by establishing autonomous regulatory agencies that enforce health-based standards and regularly publish findings.
Funding and financing:
- Develop clear policy objectives to guide funding and financing decisions for WASH;
- Develop costed funding and financing strategies that take into account the needs of different regions and population groups;
- Increase public spending on WASH to recognize its value as a public good; and
- Encourage providers to improve performance to satisfy users and recover costs, for example by reducing interruptions of service, water losses, and improving tariff structures and efficiency of collection.
Invest in people and institutions:
- Develop a plan for building a stronger, more diverse, and gender-balanced workforce with stronger skills in the WASH sector;
- Build robust and competent institutions and a capable and motivated workforce; and
- Support the growth of professionalized service delivery, particularly in small and rural systems, by providing capacity development for underpaid and inadequately trained staff.
Data and evidence for decision-making:
- Support the institutionalization of data collection and monitoring within national systems;
- Use consistent methodologies for data collection and monitoring; and
- Transparently share and use information collected to inform decision-making processes.
Encourage WASH innovation and experimentation:
- Develop supportive government policies and regulations that encourage WASH innovation and experimentation; and
- Foster collaboration between government, civil society groups, and private sector actors to develop and implement new solutions.
Investments and decisive action in water, sanitation and hygiene can be transformative. The key to unlocking universal WASH access is right there – now we just have to seize it.