Catarina de Albuquerque
CEO, Sanitation and Water for All
The water in the oceans, rivers and lakes is natural and available for free for those who live near them. Safe, drinkable water is not. Nor is sanitation and hygiene.
On my travels, I often hear people say that water comes from God and so, like air and sunlight, it shouldn’t have a price. This is a big misconception.
Humans developed systems for water, sanitation and hygiene to promote life and protect against disease. Now, as COVID-19 spreads across the planet, we suddenly see taps, toilets, soap and sinks for what they are: inventions absolutely critical to public health and human survival.
Resilient, sustainable, affordable water sanitation systems and good hygiene practices save lives. It is five years since the launch of Agenda 2030, which includes Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by the end of this decade.
2020 also marks 10 years since the UN General Assembly explicitly recognised the human rights to water and sanitation
As COVID-19 spreads across the planet, we suddenly see taps, toilets, soap and sinks for what they are: inventions absolutely critical to public health and human survival.
COVID-19 and water, sanitation and hygiene
The COVID-19 crisis is showing us that a society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members. But this is only revealing a more general truth – universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene is vital to address the current coronavirus pandemic, but also to curb other preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, and pneumonia.
Therefore, achieving universal coverage is not just about putting more money into the top of the funnel. We need policies on the ground to ensure sustainable services for all, including the poorest and most marginalised communities.
Providing water and sanitation for free for extremely poor or vulnerable communities – and in emergency situations – may be an essential lifeline in some situations, but still needs to be paid for, as otherwise this approach deprives governments and service providers of the revenue needed to maintain and expand these services.
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up interesting responses in this respect. Many countries around the world are reconnecting households that had been disconnected for non-payment (even if the households were low-income and could not afford the tariffs) and are making a special effort to connect or provide services to informal settlements, overcoming barriers that had been previously seen as insurmountable. .
The benefits of investing in water and sanitation
Investing in water and sanitation systems so that everyone has safe, reliable, affordable services is the definition of a no-brainer. Benefits include an overall estimated gain of 1.5% of global GDP and a $4.3 return for every dollar invested in water and sanitation services due to reduced health care costs and increased productivity. Investing in water and sanitation systems is also a massive opportunity to serve a huge and rapidly expanding market. Poor communities may have limited funds, but they don’t expect something for nothing. Time and again, all over the world, communities are demanding their rights and demonstrating their willingness and ability to pay a reasonable price. The human rights to water and sanitation is sacred and non-negotiable. Realizing those rights depends upon affordability. Every country needs to invest in and develop its people and institutions, policies and regulations. Strong systems, integrated across relevant ministries, need to be backed by robust accountability and monitoring mechanisms at every stage.
Fulfilling everyone’s human rights will take dedication and flexibility, but above all, it will take political prioritisation, more money and an explicitly pro-poor approach.