New innovations for new challenges in the world of water

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Chileshe Chanda

On 28 August 2016, key figures in the water and sanitation world will kick off the annual World Water Week in Stockholm. Barbara Frost, WaterAid's Chief Executive, reflects on the challenges facing universal access to water, and her final visit to World Water Week before retiring next year.

This year’s World Water Week in Stockholm, bringing together those committed to the rights of everyone to access safe water and sanitation, will be an event of mixed emotions for me. 

It is my last Water Week as Chief Executive of WaterAid as I will be retiring next year, and I attend knowing that I will meet many who have been such a great strength and inspiration to me over the past 11 years. Together with all my colleagues in WaterAid and our partners, everyone present has a key role to play to contribute to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and our shared goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 and achieving universal access to basic services.

This year’s event comes just before the first anniversary of the signing of the United Nations’ Global Goals, which included Global Goal 6 and a commitment to universal access to water and sanitation - essential to healthy lives and livelihoods, to peace, and to prosperity. 

I will go with a real sense of hope and excitement for the future transformation of millions of lives around the world, as women and their families gain access to clean water, toilets and hygiene for the first time.

Creative solutions to water and sanitation access

A clear, standalone goal for water and sanitation, and the recognition in the other goals of the essential nature of Goal 6, was essential to achieve the scale of ambition needed to eradicate extreme poverty. It will build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals in more than halving the number of people without access to water, and also give desperately needed focus to sanitation provision which is so badly lagging behind. 

Poor sanitation and hygiene leads to children being malnourished, to girls dropping out of school at puberty and to mothers dealing with sick children - and in the worst case, the loss of a young life. An unacceptable situation. 

However there is progress being made around the world in ensuring sustainable universal access, one example of which we will highlight this week, as WaterAid enters into the world of virtual reality with the support of our partner HSBC. Our stunning film transports viewers into the Nepalese hillside village of Kharelthok, currently recovering from 2015’s devastating earthquakes, and shows how the water systems and latrines are being repaired.

It is an incredible film, and one which we hope will give a new understanding of our work, the great need which still exists, and the hard work of communities and partners to cope and move forward in the face of enormous adversity. 

We will also highlight progress in India, a country which is now a regional powerhouse with a fast-growing economy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally heading a mission to end open defecation by 2019 – a huge challenge exacerbated by the fact that only 40% of the population currently has access to safe sanitation.

Our senior policy analyst on sanitation, Andrés Hueso, has been looking at how the city of Visakhapatnam, the economic capital of the Southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is making impressive strides in eliminating the practice of open defecation – common in informal settlements and slums of many of South Asia’s fast-growing cities as infrastructure fails to keep up. 

Understanding the political prioritisation and creative solutions which helped the city achieve such progress is the aim of the research paper A Tale of Clean Cities, which will be presented in Stockholm in a collaborative event about city-wide sanitation. 

Water for sustainable growth

But whilst we celebrate progress we do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead to achieve Global Goal 6, and the first year of the new targets has been one of great uncertainty and challenge for the future development of our world. 

A massive and enduring refugee crisis means millions of people are displaced and eking out survival on the margins, too many of them exposed to disease from dirty water and poor sanitation. Global temperatures continue to rise, resulting in a string of the hottest months ever recorded and fuelling fears of the extreme weather events that will be exacerbated by climate change. And the Rio Olympics have highlighted the global importance of proper sanitation systems for the world’s great cities, with athletes competing in its badly polluted bays taking extreme precautions against the high levels of viruses and bacteria that lurk in the waters. 

This year’s World Water Week is focused on water for sustainable growth. This lifeblood for us all is in ever more precious demand, with the competing needs of industry and growing and moving populations facing off against the depletion of many traditional freshwater sources. 

The impact of water scarcity and climate change is starkly visible in a new photo exhibition which we are mounting with the support of the H&M Conscious Foundation. The celebrated photographer Malin Fezehai travelled to Thatta, Pakistan, site of the devastating 2010 floods, to capture the ongoing struggles with freshwater scarcity and salination which plague the region, and our work with schoolchildren in the area, in photographs which are in turns hauntingly sad, and full of colour and hope. 

To persuade others of the importance of achieving universal access, we must keep joining up the dots to show how a lack of access to clean water and safe sanitation impacts on so many disparate areas. 

The Nutrition for Growth moment prior to the Rio Olympics helped us highlight the links between WASH and malnutrition. This is an area of great importance, since 50% of undernutrition – the most common form of malnutrition – is linked to the chronic infections and intestinal worms that come from dirty water and poor hygiene. Our new publications, Caught Short and The Missing Ingredients, show clearly how the countries with the worst rates of stunting are often also dealing with poor access to water and sanitation, and how many countries are failing to properly integrate a focus on water, sanitation and hygiene into their policies and plans for improving nutrition. 

There is no time to waste

Finally, as always at World Water Week, we are encouraging the corporate world to join our vision of a world where everyone everywhere has safe water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030. WaterAid’s work alongside our partners is promoting access to water, sanitation and hygiene in the communities in which people on the margins live and where corporations work, and also throughout the supply chain – from tea pickers and small-holder farmers to garment factories.

This new era, so full of challenges, requires new thinking and focused resolve. The ambition of the United Nations’ Global Goals on Sustainable Development requires us all to break out of our comfort zones and question received wisdom in order to come up with new partnerships and new ways of working. We need not only to make good on the promise of Goal 6 and deliver access to water and sanitation to everyone everywhere, but in doing so show how that access will help deliver so many of the other Goals. For example, by bringing clean water to a community we help make the lives of women and girls easier and help to achieve Goal 5 of gender equality. 

Protecting people from water borne disease not only contributes to Goal 3 of good health, it also increases productivity, contributing to Goal 8 and economic development. The positive ripple effect of bringing clean water and sanitation changes lives in so many ways and contributes profoundly to human development.

There are only 14 years left until 2030 and the planned fulfilment of the commitment to Goal 6: access to water and sanitation to everyone everywhere. New approaches, strong political will, effective systems, investment and new collaborative partnerships are needed urgently. There is no time to waste.

Barbara Frost tweets as @barbarafrost