Safe drinking water a concern for too many countries

Australian Medical Association/AusMed

The World Health Organisation and UN-Water have sounded the alarm for an urgent increase in investment in strong drinking-water and sanitation systems.

The call came as the international water sector met in Stockholm for its annual conference during World Water Week in the last week of August. It is triggered by a new report published by WHO on behalf of UN-Water revealing that weak government systems and a lack of human resources and funds are jeopardising the delivery of water and sanitation services in the world’s poorest countries – and undermining efforts to ensure health for all.

“Too many people lack access to reliable and safe drinking-water, toilets and hand-washing facilities, putting them at risk of deadly infections and threatening progress in public health,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Water and sanitation systems don’t just improve health and save lives, they are a critical part of building more stable, secure and prosperous societies. We call on all countries that lack essential water and sanitation infrastructure to allocate funds and human resources to build and maintain it.”

The UN-Water Global Assessment and Analysis of Sanitation and Drinking-Water 2019 (known as the GLAAS report) surveyed 115 countries and territories, representing 4.5 billion people. It showed that in an overwhelming majority of countries, the implementation of water, sanitation and hygiene policies and plans is constrained by inadequate human and financial resources.

Nineteen countries and one territory reported a funding gap of more than 60 per cent between identified needs and available funding. Less than 15 per cent of countries have the financial or human resources needed to implement their plans.

“If we are to create a healthier, more equitable and stable society, then strengthening the systems to reach those currently living without safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene services must be a top priority,” Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Gilbert F Houngbo said.

“While we need to ensure that there is sufficient funding to tackle these critical challenges, it is equally important to continue reinforcing national delivery systems.”

UN-Water coordinates the efforts of United Nations entities and international organisations working on water and sanitation issues. More than 30 UN organisations carry out water and sanitation programs, reflecting the fact that water issues run through all of the UN’s main focus areas.

About half of the countries surveyed have now set drinking-water targets that aim for universal coverage at levels higher than basic services by 2030, for example by addressing water quality and increasing access to water on premises. In addition, specifically targeting open defecation will have a dramatic impact on public and environmental health.

While funding gaps and weak systems are holding many countries back, the report also found that countries have begun to take positive steps towards achieving sustainable development goals on water and sanitation.

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