Mapping progress and ambition toward 2030

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Margaret Batty

‘What is the story that an organisation tells itself that isn’t true’? Margaret Batty, Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at WaterAid, celebrates progress since the UK House of Commons International Development Committee Report on Sanitation and Water published ten years ago.

'What is the story that an organisation tells itself that isn’t true'? I heard this question posed recently, and it really got under my skin. It is so very penetrating, it demands attention.

WaterAid is an upbeat organisation and we like to believe that the world is making progress to alleviate the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) crisis. But is it, or is this an illusion?

WaterAid also believes very strongly in being an evidence-based organisation. So what better reference source to check our assertion of progress against than the UK House of Commons International Development Committee Report on Sanitation and Water, published exactly ten years ago, on 26 April 2007?

Looking back at WASH over the past decade, my conclusion would be that everything is the same and yet nothing is the same. The grinding WASH crisis, along with extreme poverty, persists. Some 663 million people still don’t have access to clean drinking water and nearly 2.4 billion to decent sanitation.

This is simply unacceptable. There is no time for complacency. Everyone everywhere must have access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

Causes for celebration

And yet, there have been huge successes over the past 10–20 years. We should acknowledge and celebrate progress.

Global child mortality has halved since 1990, and the global Millennium Development Goals’ target on water was met five years early, albeit due largely to rapid progress in China.

There has also been a significant change in WASH policy discourse, in political attention and ambition. Let’s take a few examples:

  • In 2007 the House of Commons International Development Committee Report talked about water and sanitation ‘needs’. In 2010 the rights to Water and Sanitation were agreed at the UN.
  • In 2007 there was very little political debate or attention to sanitation. For instance, the Millennium Development Goal target on sanitation was an afterthought, added two years later in 2002. Yet in 2008 the International Year of Sanitation raised awareness and really got decision-makers talking, and in 2014, in the margins of the African Union Summit, the African Development Bank signed the ‘Kigali Action Plan’ to improve WASH in ten countries, by mobilising 50 million Euros. This was a promising sign of regional political momentum and commitment to WASH.
  • The UN Millennium Development Goal aimed to halve the proportion of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation. But in 2015 the UN massively raised the global stakes by committing to Sustainable Development Goal 6 aiming for universal access to water and sanitation, with hygiene now recognised too. This higher level of ambition, both in terms of reaching everyone and aiming for higher levels of service, is a game-changer.
  • In 2007, UK MPs called for a ‘Global Plan of Action’ to create political will, strengthen capacity and institute behaviour change. The Sanitation and Water for All partnership was created in 2010, and this month we’ve had the fourth biennial meeting of the Global Sanitation and Water for All Partnership High-Level Meetings, a formal part of the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington DC, where ministers of finance, development, water and sanitation have gathered to address these very issues together, bonded by common vision.
  • In 2007 the International Development Committee declared that DfID and the WASH sector needed to work at the interface of essential public services (i.e. WASH, health and education). In 2011 the World Health Organization agreed its first resolutions on water, sanitation and hygiene and health, and in 2015 the UN Sustainable Development Goals recognised that WASH underpins much of the human development agenda, from universal health coverage to the empowerment of women and girls.
Schoolchildren in high spirits after their school WASH club, Malawi, July 2015.
Schoolchildren in high spirits after their school WASH club, Malawi, July 2015.
Image: WaterAid/Margaret Batty

Living our mission with flexibility

WaterAid is proud to have contributed in some way to each and every one of these critical evolutions in the WASH sector, in collaboration with many partners, and alongside many communities working towards and claiming their rights to water and sanitation. We’ve remained true to mission and focus, but we also took on board the wise counsel of a DfID leader who advised us in a seminar in 2013: “Don’t be seduced by numbers, reach for innovation and change.”

We adapted and flexed and have not been afraid to pioneer change, for example championing an agenda of sustainable systems strengthening, and working to integrate WASH in health and nutrition programmes. We’ve steadily grown in confidence to help influence the transformational change that will be essential to achieve the UN’s Global Goals.

“We don’t see poverty, we see possibility”

We’ve all learnt that politics really does matter to WASH progress. To quote Victor Hugo, “the sewer is the conscience of the city”. It is gratifying that sanitation has risen up the global political agenda over the past decade.

And yet, the proverbial glass can still seem half empty. The global consensus on development is fragile. Headlines are dominated by rising nationalism, and acts of violent extremism. Climate change and the migration crisis pose enormous, unprecedented challenges. A new acronym has entered our lexicon – ‘B2T’ – as it will take ‘billions to trillions’ in new finance to resource the UN’s Global Goals. Yet the fiscal environment is tough, and we see international development budgets under threat.

The last mile in development and poverty eradication will be the hardest, we know that – which is why we need to hold on to the fact that there has been significant progress and we are making headway towards that vision of a world where everyone will have access to water and sanitation by 2030.

We have the responsibility and the privilege of being the first generation who can and must help ensure the alleviation of extreme global poverty and reaching of everyone everywhere with water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030. What a challenge, and what a time to be a change-maker.

As World Bank President Jim Kim told an audience in London this month: “We don’t see poverty, we see possibility. We must put our faith in the poor and raise our aspirations to meet theirs. Don’t believe the naysayers who say it can’t be done.”

Margaret Batty tweets as @margaretbatty