Urgent action needed at Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meetings

4 min read

As the Sanitation and Water for All High-level Meetings get underway, Barbara Frost, Chief Executive of WaterAid, sees an opportunity to change the course of history.

For the 2.4 billion people in the world who live without access to a decent toilet the events happening in Washington DC this week have the potential to bring about lasting change.

Amid the buzz of the World Bank’s annual Spring Meetings is an opportunity to change the course of history as government ministers and colleagues from around the world gather for the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meetings.

Calling for radical change

The timing is critical. Since the last such gathering in Washington DC in 2014, UN member states have agreed the Global Goals on Sustainable Development to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 – including Goal 6 which commits to universal access to sanitation, hygiene and water.

Yet the new UN Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water(GLAAS) produced by the World Health Organization shows that more than 80% of developing countries surveyed reported being unable to meet their national targets on water and sanitation without significant investment and new approaches to financing.

It also reported that global aid commitments for water and sanitation have fallen by 21% since 2012, from US $10.4 billion to US$ 8.2 billion in 2015.

This is a key moment to call for radical change and to ensure that countries that lagged behind in the Millennium Development Goal on sanitation and water are able to deliver progress in achieving Global Goal 6. Without this extreme poverty cannot be eradicated.

The World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, urged a new approach to finance when he addressed the London School of Economics last week; he is optimistic that the ambition of the Global Goals can be realised. He stressed these goals are interconnected and interdependent. Girls’ empowerment, child health and future prosperity depend on water, sanitation and hygiene as well as good education and nutrition.

Access to these means saving the lives of the 314,000 children under five who now die each year from diarrhoeal illnesses linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. It means healthier families, women with more time to earn a living or care for their families, and girls able to continue their educations.

This High-level Meeting is a key moment to commit to achieving Goal 6 through new approaches, partnerships and funding models and to galvanise the political will to make change happen.

It can be done

The ambition of the Global Goals is enormous, and delivering them will be no small feat. However, they are achievable, with the right political will and investment. We only need to look at the extraordinary progress made in recent history to see what can be done.

In 1981, 44% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2015 this was down to 10% and since 1990, one billion people have been lifted out of poverty.

In 2000, 18% of the world’s population, or one billion people, had no access to improved drinking water, and 41%, or 2.5 billion, lived without adequate sanitation.

In 2015, the number of people without access to a basic, improved source of water fell to below 10%.

While these rates of progress are encouraging, greater pace and urgency is needed to deliver the Goals, and in particular universal access to sanitation. We know delivering sanitation for all within a generation is possible, as evidenced by WaterAid research into the recent history of Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea.

WaterAid and others have long championed the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership as a means to focus global attention on the rights of people who are living in poverty and ill health, and whose lives can be improved with the right investment in sanitation, hygiene and water. Investment is needed in the establishment and maintenance of systems to ensure lasting, affordable and sustainable services that allow everyone in this world to live healthy, prosperous lives.

Political will and high-level commitment to action is urgently needed. Investment in services that reach all communities and that leave no one behind. The Swachh Bharat, or Clean India campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an inspiring example of a sustained drive to change behaviour and practice, and to invest in toilets and waste removal.

I urge the Ministers and their development partners gathered at the Sanitation and Water for All High-level Meeting to do everything in their power to strengthen the systems needed to deliver sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services to the poorest and to the most marginalised. To do so will transform lives and fundamentally change the pace of progress towards a better world, where children have opportunities and families live healthy and prosperous lives.

WaterAid was a founding partner of SWA and champions the need for urgent global investment in sanitation and water as fundamental to poverty eradication.


The Sanitation and Water for All High-level Meeting of finance ministers and development partners is 20 April in Washington D.C., to be opened by UN Secretary-General, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, and actor and water advocate Matt Damon.