How water and sanitation systems are vital for our economies

By Catarina de Albuquerque, Chief Executive Officer, Sanitation and Water for All partnership |

Pipes are conduits for water and sanitation. They run everywhere, make a complex system work effectively and, if you’re fortunate enough to have access, it can be easy to take them for granted. They become almost invisible -, up until they stop working when their importance becomes all too clear.

Beyond their role in providing essential functions such as drinking, cooking, washing and going to the toilet, do people think about the ripple effect of water, sanitation and hygiene on other parts of our lives? And from decision-makers, do we witness a level of policy prioritization and investment commensurate with water and sanitation’s critical importance? The answer, in far too many parts of the world, is a resounding no. As an international community, we are too often blind to the huge costs in failing to serve so many people with the most basic but crucial of services.

Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene: a missed opportunity

Today, there are still 2.2 billion people without safe drinking water and 4.2 billion without a safe place to go the toilet. Reaching all of these people with sustainable services will take much more than physical infrastructure. Even where this infrastructure is already being improved, the systems and resourcing to expand them to everyone and keep them running are frequently insufficient.

Investments need to grow — by three times, to an annual $114 billion, according to the World Bank’s estimate — to meet the scale of the challenge. However, this is not a plea for charity, this is a wake-up call.

The current global water and sanitation crisis is a story of colossal, rapidly increasing, unmet demand leading to colossal, rapidly increasing costs. Meeting Sustainable Development Goal 6 – water and sanitation for all by 2030 – is not a burden; it is a massive opportunity.

To find concrete solutions to the financing gap, the partnership Sanitation and Water for All – a global platform for achieving the water, sanitation and hygiene-related targets of the SDGs is organizing three Regional Finance Ministers’ Meeting in November and December. There we will focus on the fact that expanding water and sanitation services by strengthening the systems that deliver them is the bedrock of economic growth and sustainable development.

Benefits include an overall estimated gain of 1.5% of global gross domestic product and a $4.3 return for every dollar invested in WASH services due to reduced health care costs and increased productivity – that’s a rate of return that any investor would wish for.

The cost of not investing

We also take into consideration the impact of not investing. For instance, affordable, reliable, easily accessible water and sanitation services prevent thousands of children dying every year from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and cholera. Healthier children absorb nutrients properly, develop stronger brains and bodies, get better school results and end up making a fuller contribution to society. And we have seen all too recently how quickly a pandemic like COVID-19 can spread when people are not able to wash their hands with water and soap.

Girls and women are relieved of time-consuming, back-breaking water fetching and are protected from the indignity and danger of going to the toilet in insecure facilities or in the fields and streets. Water and sanitation services in schools and workplaces ensure girls and women can manage personal hygiene and not miss out on education or income.

Disease burden is reduced and epidemic risk from diseases such as the coronavirus, and fast-moving killers such as cholera are slowed. Water, sanitation and hand hygiene in healthcare facilities is essential for protecting healthcare workers, patients and newborns against the spread of infections.

The workforce is more productive.

The bottom line is that economic growth rests on improving educational achievement and public health — two things that are impossible without water, sanitation and hygiene.

The role of finance decision-makers

None of this is news. Since the early days of the industrial revolution, we have known the transformative economic and social benefits of access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and the horrific consequences of inaction.

If finance ministers fail to help prioritize water and sanitation, the consequences could affect societies for generations. Financial decision-makers must create an enabling environment through investing in institutions and people. And they must mobilize new sources of finance – whether from taxes, tariffs, transfers, or repayable finance.

Many countries are already implementing some of these measurements and seeing the immediate advantages. In 2014, Mali committed to move towards allocating at least 0.2% of GDP to hygiene and sanitation, and 5% of the national budget for water and sanitation. Kenya has had great results using shadow credit ratings for utilities to attract domestic and international finance. Rwanda created a public-private partnership to increase private sector participation in water and sanitation and front load investments to make sure services are available sooner.

In the end, well-resourced, well-run water and sanitation systems are catalysts for progress in every sector – from gender, food and education, to health, industry and the environment.

By nature of their work, Finance Ministers must use evidence to make smart decisions that help their counties flourish. In the case of water, sanitation and hygiene, the evidence is clear: continuing to neglect these services will only continue to stunt the growth of our economies, populations and societies. Now is the time to make the logical choice to invest in water and sanitation solutions that have the best return on investment – healthy families and a clean environment.

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