What has water got to do with jobs?

4 min read

'Better water, better jobs' is the UN theme for today’s World Water Day. So what has water got to do with jobs? More than you might think, says Dan Jones, WaterAid UK’s Advocacy Coordinator.

It might not seem like the most obvious of links (he says, drinking water at his desk while he works), but it’s a focus that WaterAid welcomes. The reality is that water, on so many levels, is inseparable from jobs and employment. Here’s how.

Counting the cost of water

Today we launch a new report, Water: At What Cost? The State of the World’s Water 2016. Not only does the report provide a powerful snapshot of the state of the world’s water, but it shines a spotlight on the 650 million people who still do not have an improved source of water.

It’s hard to quantify, or to visualise, the impact this can have on women, men and children. The price communities pay for lacking safe water – in wasted income, ill-health, and lost productivity – is extremely high, and has a devastating impact, from the family to the national level.

For a poor person with no access to safe water at home, buying the World Health Organisation-recommended minimum requirement of 50 litres a day can be a huge drain on a meagre salary.

In Antananarivo, Madagascar, for example, a factory worker would have to spend 45% of their daily wage to get 50 litres of water from a tanker truck, with no guarantee that the water was safe to drink. Many people have no choice but to compromise their health and dignity by using much less or collecting water from unsafe sources.

Businesses’ productivity is hit hard by staff absenteeism, high turnover and low morale related to lack of access to clean, safe water in workplaces. The impact on jobs, businesses and economies cannot be underestimated.

A lack of water workers

A lack of skilled water workers is another way in which water and jobs are inter-connected. According to the UN, almost half of the world’s workers – 1.5 billion people – work in water-related sectors, and nearly all jobs depend on water and those that ensure its safe delivery. I wonder how many workers were involved in providing the glass of water I’m now drinking?

WaterAid’s report Releasing the Flow highlights the vital role of those working in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how shortages in skilled workers are holding back progress towards a world where everyone has access to safe water, as promised in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Based on research in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda, the report presents some of the many challenges local governments come up against in financing and delivering the essential services of WASH to local communities.

Although these countries have made good progress towards access to water and sanitation, all face a struggle when it comes to financing and managing key jobs in the sector. Budgets for capital expenses – taps, latrines, pipes and other hardware – often far outstrip budgets available for staff recruitment, training and retention, even of such essential personnel as qualified engineers, water scientists, technicians, plant operators and health inspectors.

The result is high staff turnover and positions that often go unfilled, especially in remote or rural locations.

Four Impacts of Unsafe Water
Image: WaterAid

Water for workplaces as well as communities

As the Overseas Development Institute has emphasised, there is an urgent need for multiple levels of practical collaboration between private and public sectors to address these challenges.

That’s why today WaterAid is backing the launch of a new initiative, WASH4Work, which aims to amplify and align the good work underway by many to raise the profile of water and sanitation in the workplace, the communities where workers live and through supply chains.

This campaign is recognition that, although momentum is building to ensure access to WASH in homes, schools and – with leadership from WHO and UNICEF – healthcare facilities, less attention has been given to the issue of access where people work. Yet for businesses, ensuring workers have access to WASH can pay dividends across the value chain.

If we are to achieve the Global Goal of water, sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030, or indeed Global Goals on decent work and economic growth, on health for all, on quality education or gender equality, now is the time to recognise that better water for all workers is essential – and now is the time to act.

Dan Jones tweets as @danrodmanjones