2021 and beyond: four ways the EU can accelerate progress on access to WASH

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

After a year of promising developments, Anna Nilsdotter, chief executive of WaterAid Sweden, reflects on what progress she would like to see from the European Union ahead of the landmark 2023 UN Water conference.

Last week, on World Toilet Day, the Council of the European Union adopted several conclusions which highlight the importance of water to achieve its global priorities. These conclusions are:

  • Highlight the importance of water for human development, nutrition and climate resilience
  • Call for cross-sectoral collaboration between water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and health
  • Call for more public and private finance to plug the funding gap for the sustainable development goal on water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Stress the importance of upholding the human rights to water and sanitation, particularly for children and people with disabilities, to bolster gender equality and protect sanitation workers
  • Urge the EU to speak as one voice ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference

These commitments follow several other promising developments over the last year. In January, I spoke at the opening high-level panel of the EU Water and Beyond conference, which aimed to strengthen cooperation and partnerships on water towards achieving the sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement. And in July, Slovenia kicked-off its EU presidency with another high-level event aiming to put health and water at the centre of the Africa-EU partnership.

Since the start of the UN Water Action Decade in 2018, we have welcomed the EU Council’s conclusions on water diplomacy, and EU guidelines on the human rights to water and sanitation. These texts look great, but how can we make sure the EU builds on those commitments, and invests in water, sanitation and hygiene services in a smart and sustainable way?

Here, we suggest five ways the EU, European governments and donors can make sure that their investments, policies and programmes on WASH achieve transformative change over the next few years.

1. Support a sustainable and people-centred economic recovery in Africa

African and European leaders should seize the opportunity of the EU-AU summit, planned for February 2022, to promote a transformational shift towards healthier, more sustainable and equitable economies and societies.

Some 33 of the top 50 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. Right now, one in three Africans live without clean water close to their home, and the climate crisis only makes this worse by threatening critical water supplies and services. Health ministers of the Southern African Development Community have just reviewed their joint strategy on hygiene, which aims to strengthen access to hygiene facilities in all settings. EU support in implementing this strategy would be welcomed.

2. Strengthen the EU’s role in protecting the human rights to water and sanitation

Another milestone next year will be the European Parliament’s adoption of its report on access to water. This report must address the barriers that prevent progress on water, such as low political priority, poor policy implementation and monitoring, chronic under-funding, outdated or broken infrastructure and the lack of accountability and public participation, which particularly affect the most marginalised.

The report should also serve as a reminder that the European Commission and the European External Action Service should report regularly on how they are implementing guidelines on the human rights to water and sanitation, with tangible examples of their activities and impact.

The European Parliament should also urge EU delegations to include the human rights to water and sanitation in any political dialogues with partner countries around human rights. The Parliament could also promote training on these rights so that decision-makers have a better understanding of what prevents them from being realised.

3. Ensure universal access to hygiene is a key component of pandemic preparedness

Next year, the EU will start implementing its bilateral and multilateral cooperation programmes for 2021-2027 within its partner countries. As WASH and health will be prioritised in several developing countries, it is a unique opportunity for the EU to increase funding for handwashing and hygiene behaviour change infrastructure, services and campaigns and increase emergency funding for WASH in healthcare facilities.

It will cost around $11 billion to make sure everyone in the poorest countries has somewhere to wash their hands with soap and water at home. A further $9.6 billion is needed to bring WASH services to all health facilities and hospitals in the world’s 46 least developed countries over a decade. These are large sums of money, but the potential health and economic benefits of those investments are enormous: universal access to handwashing could generate a net benefit of $45 billion per year, while providing a tap in every household could yield US$37 billion per year.

Several developing countries, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan, are already taking steps to develop costed roadmaps which set out how countries will strengthen access to hand hygiene facilities everywhere and promote hand hygiene behaviour change. It is critical that the EU supports the implementation of these roadmaps.

4. Invest in climate-resilient WASH to build resilience to climate change

Access to WASH is a critical aspect of developing resilience to climate change, especially as those most affected must cope with changing weather patterns, less predictable rainfall, saltwater contamination of drinking water sources, and increased exposure to disease.

It is promising to see that water is clearly framed as one of the priority areas of the European Green Deal, but COP26 did not fulfil its promises to increase adaptation finance for the most climate-vulnerable countries. At the next UN climate conference, we expect the EU to present financial commitments for climate adaptation that are specifically available for climate-resilient WASH services. The EU could also consider supporting the Resilient Water Accelerator as part of its climate adaptation programmes in developing countries.

A year to the UN water conference

At the mid-way point of the UN’s decade on water, we hope that the 2023 UN Water conference will be used by key donors, including the EU, as a platform to announce commitments to bridge the funding gap in achieving global goal six. And as Sweden will also take presidency of the Council of the European Union between January and July of that year, WaterAid Sweden will soon engage with our government to ensure we make the most of the opportunity to accelerate sustainable and inclusive progress on water, sanitation and hygiene.

Anna Nilsdotter, chief executive, WaterAid Sweden

Further reading

Top image: Women collect water from the pond sand filter, a simple technology which purifies pond water through sand and gravel and makes it safe for drinking. Kathamari, Shyamnagar, Satkhira, Bangladesh. September 2018.