If not now, when? WASH is critical to achieving the SDGs, especially in context of COVID-19

8 min read
Image: WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

With COVID-19 starkly highlighting lack of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, Katie Tobin sets out the urgent actions governments and donors must take to ensure universal water, sanitation and hygiene and tackle inequalities.

Our manifesto for the 2020 UN High Level Political Forum

Five years after committing to the 2030 Agenda, governments, donors and their private sector partners have made nowhere near enough progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The major structural shifts in the global political economy required to end extreme poverty and hunger, address climate crisis, redress inequalities, fulfil women’s rights and guarantee access to basic services including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) have not come about. The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) – the annual United Nations meeting intended to be a monitoring mechanism for the SDGs – has failed to inspire honest assessment of the challenges to meeting them, or provide meaningful accountability for governments’ lack of progress on their commitments.

Against this backdrop, the COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting catastrophic impacts on the health, livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions of people across the world, with at least 10 million and counting infected with the virus. Lockdowns, curfews and shelter-in-place orders have brought the global economy to a standstill, with many people living in poverty forced to risk their health by continuing to work to avoid starvation. The virus disproportionately infects and kills those who are denied access to the basics that would protect them from disease: universal healthcare, nutritious food, decent housing – and safe water, adequate sanitation and the soap and water required for them to be able to frequently wash their hands.

A global coordinated response to COVID-19 is urgently required

If the Decade of Action for SDGs progress is to achieve real change, a coordinated global response in solidarity with those who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis is urgently required, through rapid and expansive steps to finance and implement the 2030 Agenda.

As the international community gathers virtually this week for the HLPF, civil society is looking to governments to define and commit to a clear plan to fulfil their responsibility as duty bearers of universal human rights, through rapid and extensive expansion of public service provision. For donor countries, the “massive global stimulus” urgently needed to address COVID-19 must involve immediate cash assistance to developing countries, in the form of grants rather than loans, to account for rich countries’ historical role as pilferers and polluters. Only a major upscaling of international public finance can guarantee universal, affordable, accessible, available and safe WASH for all.

The 2020 HLPF provides the opportunity for governments to show that they understand the urgency of transformative action, and to explain how they will tackle and transform global structural economic and financial systems to capture the resources required to address COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and redress the injustices that preceded both. The UN, as the world’s only truly democratic multilateral institution, must lead in coordinating international approaches to taxation, cancelling and restructuring debt, and ending fossil fuel subsidies, along with other measures of freeing up liquidity to finance the COVID-19 response and sustainable development globally.

Children washing their hands at a foot-operated contactless handwashing station at Panga bus station, Kirtipur, Nepal.
Children washing their hands at a foot-operated contactless handwashing station at Panga bus station, Kirtipur, Nepal.
Image: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

WASH is fundamental to the COVID-19 response

Already before the virus started to spread, three billion people globally lacked soap and water at home, and almost half of healthcare facilities (43%) lacked basic hand hygiene facilities at points of care. In March, the United Nations warned that decades of chronic underfunding of water infrastructure puts the world at greater risk from the coronavirus. Practising good hygiene is central to public advice, so providing safe water for all must be central to government action – how can you wash your hands if you don’t have safe water?

COVID-19 is making visible and exacerbating existing inequalities along lines of income, location, gender, disability and other markers of discrimination – factors that were already determining access to essential services, including WASH, before the pandemic struck. Stopping the pandemic and minimising its lethal impact relies on delivering adequate support for provision of vital WASH services, particularly through handwashing with soap, prioritising the poorest and most marginalised.

WASH is key to building back better and green recovery

As the international community begins to envision collective efforts to build back better, redressing the impacts of COVID-19 must include a recommitment to the original roadmap for global progress enshrined in the 2030 Agenda. This must include a massive increase in investment both from donors and from national governments to extend WASH services to all, as a critical enabler for the whole of the 2030 Agenda and in fulfilment of universal human rights.

Access to WASH is crucial to boost resilience to multiple global threats, including current and future pandemics and the impacts of climate crisis – especially for the poorest and most marginalised people. WASH must be central to any healthy, green and just post-COVID-19 recovery package defined and implemented by governments and bilateral and multilateral donors, to ensure progress towards fulfilling human rights and achieving the SDGs.

Financing public services through a massive global stimulus is essential

Despite the multiple benefits access to WASH services delivers, hygiene, water and sanitation are chronically underfunded. Governments and donors have neglected the basics of clean water, soap and toilets for decades. Prior to COVID-19 there was already a critical shortage in funding: less than 15% of countries indicate sufficient levels of financing for their WASH needs, and even less – just 4% of countries (PDF) – have sufficient financial resources to achieve national hygiene targets.

Initial collective steps to address COVID-19 have not provided adequate funding to solve this problem. Our analysis of major funding initiatives to address COVID-19 indicates that out of approximately 70 announcements so far from donors or institutions to help contain the disease in low- and middle-income countries, only nine have included any mention at all of hygiene (and most of these don’t include new money).

Rather than positioning COVID-19 as an excuse to postpone action on sustainable development, governments and donors must seize this moment to renew their commitment to multilateralism and collective action, including by committing at least US$9 billion in new, additional financing to advance efforts to achieve SDG 6 on water and sanitation.

In addition to dedicated funding for SDG 6 or WASH, financing the massive global stimulus to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession requires a comprehensive package of fundamental reform comprising debt relief, taxation, international aid, reserves and subsidies. This structural transformation should be urgently instituted both as part of the immediate response to COVID-19 and as permanent redirections of and safeguards on international economic and financial systems.

As is the case for WASH, financing to advance progress on the SDGs was woefully insufficient even before widely instituted lockdowns and the resulting economic recession. A conservative estimate indicates SDG financing gaps in developing countries of between US$1.4 trillion and $2.5 trillion. Public finance will have to cover most of that shortfall, especially in a post-COVID world, as a forthcoming study by the Overseas Development Institute shows. Only a major influx of international public funding –  overseen through principles of transparency and accountability and the participation of civil society – can enable the concerted political action and system strengthening (PDF) required to end the pandemic, deliver the Paris Climate Agreement and achieve the universal promise of the SDGs.

Parul Begum standing near the household rainwater harvesting system plant beside her poultry farm, in a coastal area of Bangladesh where salinity of freshwater is increasing. Funded by HSBC.
Parul Begum stands near the household rainwater harvesting system she installed at her poultry farm.
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

WASH is a transformative pathway towards sustainable development

SDG 6 on water and sanitation is fundamental to “Protecting and advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty”, one of the six entry points identified by the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, around which the 2020 High Level Political Forum will be organised. Equitable, universal access to WASH is a critical enabler of the improvements in wellbeing that advance development objectives and fulfil human rights. Urgent collective action to finance and implement extension of WASH services in households, schools, healthcare facilities and public spaces will serve as a ‘transformative pathway’ towards both the 2030 Agenda and global efforts to respond to and recover from COVID-19. See also our SDG policy briefs on how WASH is a critical enabler for the 2030 Agenda.

Our recommendations for the 2020 HLPF

  • National, municipal and district governments must ensure access to WASH, targeted towards the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, particularly through service provision to underserved and low-income areas at household level and in healthcare facilities. This is fundamental to fight the spread of COVID-19 and to build back better, achieving SDG 6 as a transformative pathway for the SDGs.  
  • Funding for WASH must be substantially increased, through an initial push to ensure adequate hygiene in COVID-19 response through new and additional global commitments of a minimum of $9 billion, to complement the scale of funding for immunisation and treatment. After this initial COVID-focused pledge drive, bilateral donors should commit to double Official Development Assistance to WASH each year between now and 2030, to meet the SDGs and strengthen global resilience against future crises.
  • Availability of services must be guaranteed, regardless of ability to pay, the status of land or housing tenure, the status of citizenship, individual mobility or other barriers. Partnerships with community groups and women’s rights organisations can help ensure resources are effectively invested to guarantee affordable and sustainable services for people living in poverty and facing discrimination.
  • WASH and health systems must be strengthened to deliver services and create mechanisms for community feedback to design policies, technology and financing that fulfil the rights of excluded people to access services, and of civil society to monitor progress and constructively hold them to account. Even more critically now, this must include measures to ensure health, safety, dignity and equity for sanitation workers, who are at additional risk of COVID-19 from handling waste and human faeces, especially women working as manual scavengers.
  • Monitoring of service provision must include increased collection and dissemination of disaggregated data, including by gender, age, ethnicity, location, disability, etc., to better understand who lacks WASH access and why.

These concrete efforts to fund and implement access to safely managed water and sanitation and good hygiene for all will set the foundations to build back better after COVID-19, prevent the spread of disease and enable improvements in health, education, decent work, women’s rights, reducing inequalities and creating resilience to the climate crisis and other shocks.

COVID-19 is not an excuse for inaction – it’s an opportunity for transformation. The pandemic has shone an inescapable searchlight on the fundamental flaws in the path to sustainable development, and on the longstanding violation of the human rights of billions of people to safe water and sanitation and good hygiene. We cannot let another five years pass by in lethargy. Governments and donors must seize this moment to act. If not now, when?

Katie Tobin is Advocacy Advisor at WaterAid. Follow her on Twitter @travelingkt