Accelerating progress: how we can end the water, sanitation and hygiene crisis together

5 min read
Bintu Nasiru (50). Kissa community, Kwaja village, Adamawa. Nigeria. February 2021
Image: WaterAid/ Etinosa Yvonne

Safe and sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are essential for improving health, tackling gender inequality, strengthening economic development and building resilience to climate change. Over the past 20 years, we have seen that real progress is possible when WASH is prioritised in national development. However, progress is still too uneven and slow. Halfway to the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs’) deadline, Amaka Godfrey introduces WaterAid’s policy recommendations, calling on governments, development partners and the private sector to accelerate progress towards SDG 6 with renewed urgency.  

WASH services and behaviours are vital for everyone and for the resilience of our societies. They are indispensable to people’s health and dignity and essential for economic development. And they play a vital role in addressing some of today’s biggest challenges, including ending poverty, tackling gender inequality, building resilience to climate change and pandemic preparedness and recovery. Yet for billions of people these human rights remain unfulfilled, leaving them unable to practise key hygiene behaviours, such as handwashing with soap at critical times.

In 2015, United Nations Member States committed to end extreme poverty and achieve sustainable development by 2030 through 17 SDGs. Mid-way to the deadline, important progress has been made on SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all – but it is still unacceptably slow and uneven. This is especially the case for people and communities living with poverty and facing vulnerabilities in least developed countries. For example, at current rates of progress in sub-Saharan Africa only 37% of people will have safely managed water by 2030. We have a long way to go.

Manaisoa carrying her youngest child on her back while she walks with her mother, Temavoalily, to collect water from a river in Andavabaza village, Anosy Region, Madagascar, June 2022. At current rates of progress in sub-Saharan Africa only 37% of people will have safely managed water by 2030. Image: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Prioritisation and investment are urgently needed  

If progress on WASH access is not accelerated, countries risk losing any gains they have made to frequent disease outbreaks, reduced water security and the effects of climate change.  

But if investment in sustainable WASH services is prioritised, governments and countries stand to gain hugely. Globally, investing in universal basic drinking water can yield up to US $32 billion annually, in universal safely managed sanitation $86 billion and in universal basic hygiene $45 billion. These investments could prevent the millions of deaths caused by unsafe WASH and save the 77 million days that girls and women spend walking long distances to collect water.

Progress is possible when national governments prioritise WASH in development 

Over the past 20 years, we have seen that real progress is possible when WASH is prioritised in national development. For example, between 2000 and 2020, basic sanitation coverage in India rose from 15% to 71%, and basic drinking water coverage in Nigeria increased from 43% to 73%. 

Rapid progress happens when WASH policies and programmes have the full backing and leadership of national governments, together with the necessary public funding. Support from development partners and the private sector can accelerate progress even further.  

Our guide to accelerating progress on WASH 

Our new policy paper for developing country governments and ministers, policy makers, decision makers, development partners and the private sector serves as a guide to accelerating progress towards sustainable and safe WASH for all.

In Ending the water, sanitation and hygiene crisis together: policy priorities for accelerating progress, we highlight the barriers that prevent acceleration of progress, including insufficient political prioritisation, low levels of funding, gender inequalities and social exclusion, and poor integration of WASH, water resources and climate change. We detail eight corresponding key policy recommendations, adaptable to country contexts, that will enable governments to achieve the necessary progress towards sustainable and safe WASH for everyone, everywhere.

In brief, our recommendations are: 

  • Prioritise WASH as a top national priority with highest level government leadership. 
  • Establish clear institutional arrangements for WASH. 
  • Increase WASH finances and sector efficiency. 
  • Make gender equality and social inclusion central to WASH. 
  • Mainstream WASH within health policy and programming to improve public health. 
  • Champion the delivery of WASH as a service. 
  • Prioritise and resource WASH and water security to strengthen resilience to climate change, at all levels. 
  • Establish strong accountability mechanisms and regulation. 

Alongside these recommendations, we give examples of potential immediate actions for governments and other stakeholders.

Development partners are important to supporting WASH progress 

While governments are the key drivers of progress, bilateral donors, multilateral agencies, the private sector, international NGOs, civil society and academia are all key actors in this push towards WASH for all.  

In our paper, we break down the actions donor countries can take, at the core of which should be increasing the volume and effectiveness of Official Development Assistance, reducing fragmentation and transaction costs. 

Gita Roy monitoring the reverse osmosis plant in her community, which is run by a committee. Working in the plant business has given Gita financial and social freedom. She is the leader of the women's group in Tengrakhali village, Kadakati, Khulna Division, Bangladesh. 2021. Image: WaterAid/ Drik/ Farzana Hossen

The time to act on WASH is now 

There are many reasons why WASH progress has been slow, and the challenges governments face are nuanced and country specific. However, the time to act is now. The next decade will see a continued rise in populations and in rural-urban migration. Climate change, political instability, disease outbreaks and economic downturns pose serious threats to health, water security, food security, economies, gender equality and social development. Sustainable and safe WASH will be critical to ensuring people can remain resilient to these multiple challenges.  

If you are a government minister, a policy maker or decision maker at national or sub-national level – or a development partner interested in WASH and working with governments to provide sustainable and safe services – this paper is for you.  

Read our policy paper

Amaka Godfrey is WaterAid’s Global Policy and Research Director.

Top image: Bintu Nasiru, 50, carrying water she has collected. Kissa community, Kwaja village, Adamawa, Nigeria. February 2021.