Where are the toilets please? A view from Davos

4 min read
A locally constructed toilet in Tombohuaun, Sierra Leone.
Image: WaterAid/Nana Kofi Acquah

During last week's annual World Economic Forum, WaterAid UK CEO Tim Wainwright took the opportunity to remind business leaders that clean water and sanitation are vital not just for corporate profitability, but for lifting the world's poorest out of poverty.

It is easy to knock the annual World Economic Forum – more commonly known, after the Swiss town that hosts it, as Davos.

The numbers of private jets, sky-high hotel bills and lavish dinners involved in hosting hundreds of the world’s most powerful discussing how to make the world a "better place" make for easy headlines.

But on my first visit to the gathering, albeit commuting in daily from a distinctly less glamourous location, I was struck by the amount of space and time given to some very senior corporate people on how they can contribute positively to tackling the issues facing the world.

Climate change and water were hot topics last week with much discussion on how to mitigate the former and tackle usage of the latter, from shampoos that need no water to reducing the amount of water used in irrigation.

Both topics were, perhaps inevitably, viewed through a corporate lens – focussing on the threats to future business and economic growth, as businesses become increasingly aware that an unstable climate and growing demands on water supplies pose a huge threat to business continuity.

Whilst it was encouraging to see these global risks take centre stage in discussions, the debate often felt it missed a critical link essential to creating positive impact.

For example there was a very strong emphasis on mitigating climate change and acting swiftly and decisively to reduce the emissions that threaten our planet’s future, but little recognition that millions of people around the world are already struggling to adapt to the catastrophic effects of global warming.

Or that it is the world’s poorest who are the hardest hit by increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. WaterAid is working with communities where the rise in sea levels means that water from wells is becoming too salty to drink, where flooding that is more frequent and intense pollutes the surroundings with sewage, where the drought cycles are shorter and so water harder to come by. The people we work with have done little to contribute to climate change yet are paying the price for rich countries' excess.

So for every campaign for reducing emissions we also need the same level of attention paid to living in the world we now have – helping ensure that those who already struggle to make ends meet are not plunged deeper into poverty by climatic changes.

Focusing on the problems caused by increasing demands on a finite supply of water are welcome but few at Davos were looking at the issue through a wide-angle lens.

Water is essential to life – no one argues that – but few recognise that if you don’t tackle the parlous state of the world’s sanitation then water won’t be safe to drink, and improvements in health, nutrition and education outcomes won’t be realised. Viewing through a business lens, workers who live in communities where there is no decent sanitation are more likely to become ill or look after family members who are sick, impacting on their productivity. So there is a clear business case for making sure that everyone, no matter where they are, has clean water to drink and a decent toilet.

WaterAid is liaising with the organisers of the Davos meeting to bring adaptation to climate change and sanitation onto the mainstream agenda at the 2020 meeting. It is our duty as an agency working on these issues to highlight these challenges on behalf of the poorest and most marginalised.

I hope that those business leaders that I lobbied and cajoled on water and sanitation issues last week will commit before the next gathering to working out how they can make a difference. And that those who came to Davos this year with the sole aim of maximising deals, growth and profits, will widen their field of vision for 2020. Then next year we can work together to ensure that our approaches are joined up to ensure that they will have a real impact on the lives of the poorest.