Improving overseas aid for WASH: practical steps for European policymakers and donors

7 min read
Kumari Maya Shrestha, 49, washes her hands at the tapstand near her home in Mayankhu, Katari Municipality, Nepal, March 2019.
Image: WaterAid/Mani Karmacharya

New research by WaterAid and Coalition Eau shows that funding for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) from several European donors is stagnating, unsustainable and not targeted to those most in need. So what can policymakers do to ensure their investments lead to real change?

Policymakers are the first to acknowledge that water is key for everything, from health, gender equality and education, to climate change adaptation and the economy.

Despite this, most low- and middle-income countries are not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) — ensure access to water and sanitation for all — by 2030. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.2 billion people lacked access to safely managed water, and 4.2 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation. Some countries, the UN estimates, have a funding gap of 61% for achieving water and sanitation targets.

Donors have a critical role to play in bridging this gap by providing funding in the form of official development assistance (ODA) for WASH. However, there are worrying trends at play. First, a leaked memo indicates that the UK government plans to cut bilateral funding for WASH projects by 80%. Second, research commissioned by WaterAid (PDF) shows that WASH ODA from several other European donors is stagnating, unsustainable, and is not targeted to countries with the biggest needs.

The research aimed to analyse why donors are reluctant to invest in the WASH sector and discover which opportunities exist for increasing and improving ODA levels from four donors: European Union institutions (including the European Commission and the European Investment Bank), France, Germany and Spain. The research team used three methods: a financial database analysis, a desk-review, and 25 key informant interviews, with key inputs from Coalition Eau (France), ONGAWA (Spain) and WASH United (Germany).

The key findings from the research raise some concerns:

  • The share of total ODA disbursements allocated towards WASH from all donors stagnated at ~4% between 2010 and 2019. The EU institutions, France and Germany contribute more to WASH in ODA now than they did in 2010. But this increase in ODA stalled in 2015/16 at around 4%. This shows us that despite multiple references to the 2030 agenda in political discourse, these donors have not made SDG6 a priority in terms of investments.
  • ODA loans are increasingly the dominant method of funding WASH services (except in Spain). Until 2011, all ODA given by the EU came in the form of grants, but between 2016 and 2019, WASH loans from EU institutions grew from 27% to 50.5% of its ODA. What’s more, 87% of France’s bilateral funding for WASH came in the form of loans in 2019. This development is particularly concerning in the context of a growing unpayable debt crisis in many developing countries.
  • Countries with the lowest income do not receive the greatest share of aid. For example, Germany allocated 76% of its ODA to middle income countries and only 14% to least developed countries between 2015 and 2019.
  • The EU institutions, France and Germany have a strong funding focus on large infrastructure projects, especially for water and in (peri-)urban areas. This means that there is less funding for basic WASH, behaviour change and systems strengthening, that sanitation is overlooked, and that rural areas are being left behind.

How can these worrying trends be explained?

Despite being a human right and one of the most basic human needs, in neither the EU, France, Germany nor Spain was water championed in a systematic and effective way by a vocal and influential policymaker. This is even less the case when it comes to sanitation and hygiene, even though both are critical to achieving other SDGs related to human development.

In addition, it is questionable whether integrated approaches have really led to increased WASH investments in the past. Talking about the importance of water for climate adaptation, or briefly mentioning hygiene as a sub-objective in a nutrition programme, is a first step. But if that does not lead to sustainable investments in the sector, or to structural support for partner countries, it’s not enough. And given the scale of the crises we are facing, there is no room for complacency.

Yenus rides a donkey carrying water collected from the River Lay in Frat, Ethiopia. February 2020
Yenus rides a donkey carrying water collected from the River Lay in Frat, Ethiopia. February 2020
Image: WaterAid/Joey Lawrence

Likewise, while climate change is at the top of all four donors’ agendas, climate adaptation funding is not channelled enough through WASH programmes. In 2018, water and sanitation only accounted for 8.6% of EU ODA tagged as making a 'principal' contribution to adaptation, and 7% of the funding tagged as 'significant'. It is promising to see that water is a priority area of the European Green Deal, but it is still unclear how much this broad agenda can help secure investments in basic WASH services to help people cope with the impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, when WASH ODA is used to fund big infrastructure projects through loans, it does not go to the countries where the needs are greatest. Upper and middle-income countries that can afford to borrow are given priority, to the detriment of the least developed countries, despite them having the greatest WASH needs.

Another factor that may explain the lack of strategic and sustainable international support for WASH is that, according to some donor countries (such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland), the water and sanitation sector at international level is a largely uncoordinated space that lacks policy dialogue, the exchange of best practices, and global partnerships to strengthen cooperation.

How can European policymakers improve their investments in WASH?

  1. Speak up on the vital importance of WASH. It is critical that European political leaders champion water security as a core and urgent priority. To make sure they have an impact on the ground, they should think strategically about where and how to draw attention to WASH. This may be through calling on their counterparts in the G20 to invest in WASH as a key component for socio-economic recovery, or by putting water quality on the agenda of bilateral human rights dialogues with partner countries. This is where engaging with civil society organisations enables a much more effective political leadership on water.
  2. Invest in basic WASH services for effective human development programmes. Sanitation and hygiene deserve much more political attention and financial support. To make the most of health, education or gender equality programmes —including Team Europe Initiatives (PDF) — it is essential to invest in sustainable and equitable access to WASH services in places where the needs are greatest. Human development requires well-designed, cross-sectoral interventions. For instance, schools have a key role in establishing social norms and healthy behaviours, so it is key that hygiene behaviour change is integrated into the education system to deliver long-lasting and improved behaviours at scale.
  3. Invest in climate-resilient WASH services. European donors should make the most of the climate agenda and ensure that sufficient capacity and resources are available for the poorest and most marginalised communities to become resilient to the challenges and uncertainties brought by climate change. This includes ensuring a significant increase in finance for climate adaptation in general, but also an increase in funding for basic WASH services. Donors should therefore prioritise grant-based adaptation funding and improve access to climate finance for the most vulnerable countries.
  4. Ensure aid reaches those who need it most. It is critical that the EU and the largest international donors, like France and Germany, target their WASH ODA to the lowest income countries, through grants rather than loans, and better coordinate their support by, for example, sharing information to avoid duplication, and co-financing projects.

The confluence of the climate and health crises is not only an opportunity to ‘build back better’. European policymakers and donors must make significant changes in the way they support and fund WASH services in their partner countries. Adapting to climate change, recovering from the current health and economic crises, and preparing for the next pandemic leave us with no other choice than to invest in water, sanitation and hygiene strategically, and on a massive scale.

Sandra Métayer is the coordinator of Coalition Eau and Sophie Aujean is WaterAid’s EU Representative. Follow @CoalitionEau and @EuWateraid on Twitter.

Read the research

Top image: Kumari Maya Shrestha, 49, washes her hands at the tapstand near her home in Mayankhu, Katari Municipality, Nepal, March 2019.