Why is water, sanitation and hygiene an inequalities issue? 

5 min read
Mickson Jakalasi, drawing water from a disability friendly borehole, Simulemba Health Centre, Kasungu, Malawi, July 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ Dennis Lupenga

With this year’s UN High-Level Political Forum focused on Sustainable Development Goal 10, inequalities, we have a key moment to emphasise the role of water, sanitation and hygiene in reaching it. But what’s the connection? Katie Tobin, WaterAid’s Advocacy Coordinator in New York, explains, introducing our new policy brief.

Despite recent progress, 785 million people don’t have clean water close to home, 2 billion people don’t have a decent toilet of their own and 3 billion people lack the means for good hygiene at home. The recent update to the Joint Monitoring Programme data on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) (as part of their ‘special focus on inequalities’ report, 2019), containing these figures, reinforced that access to WASH is both a strong indicator and consequence of stark global inequalities.

Whether or not you are one of those 2 billion without access to sanitation depends on a range of measurable differences within and among communities, countries and regions of the world. If you’re reading this, on a digital screen, you’re likely lucky enough to have access to both drinking water and a toilet, along with soap to wash your hands after you use it. Income is the single most accurate predictor of access to WASH – but political, social and environmental dimensions also influence the gaps between those who have access to services, infrastructure and political voice and those who do not.

The 2030 Agenda depends on Sustainable Development Goal 6

Equitable, universal access to WASH – the shared vision of both WaterAid and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 of the 2030 Agenda – is a critical enabler of the improvements in wellbeing that advance development objectives and fulfil human rights. Education, health, nutrition, livelihoods, decent work, resilience to climate change, women’s rights and peaceful societies all depend on people’s ability to access safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene.

So, while a lack of WASH can be a marker of inequalities, advancing access and including those who have been left out is an important step towards reducing them.

Next week, the 2019 UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) will address the theme of ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’. As part of its first week, leaders will undertake the first review of progress towards SDG 10: reduce inequality within and among countries.

Goal 10 is one of the most intractable, politically difficult, and hardest to measure SDGs – but also the one with the greatest transformative potential, if the international community decides to address it.

Dina, 5, sits inside her classroom in Muasse, Niassa Province, Mozambique.
Dina, 5, sits inside her classroom in Muasse, Niassa Province, Mozambique.
Image: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

HLPF 2019 is a chance to address SDG 10’s potential

Last year, we engaged with the first review of SDG 6, contributing our expertise to the official thematic discussions, side events, and country-specific SDG reporting. This year, we’re back at the HLPF with a delegation of 11, an official side event, a strategy meeting and an SDGs review workshop.

We are there this time to emphasise the fact that water and sanitation are intrinsically entwined with dynamics of poverty and inequality, both within and among countries. As we articulate in our new brief, Reducing inequalities through universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene – WASH is fundamental to SDG 10 and to the whole 2030 Agenda.

Access to WASH must be secured for remote and marginalised populations, especially people facing discrimination against their gender, ethnicity, disability, caste, religion and so on – many of the factors contributing to existing inequalities as defined by Goal 10.

Redirecting public resources towards service provision requires attention to global economic and financial systems, and how they enable or restrict countries from funding their WASH sectors and national development plans. So the global conversation around the SDGs and how to fund and implement them is one in which we have a lot to say.

Our policy brief recommendations on tackling SDGs 6 and 10 together

The political, economic, social and environmental determinants of who has access to drinking water, toilets and hygiene and who does not depend on financing and policy decisions shaped in part by the global norm-setting function of the 2030 Agenda, and the HLPF as its annual accountability moment. Ahead of HLPF we are therefore sharing specific recommendations on advancing SDG 10 and its connections with SDG 6.

For this policy brief we have joined forces with WSSCC, Center for Economic and Social Rights and End Water Poverty to show how the factors that determine inequalities within and among people are fundamental to ensuring equitable and universal access to WASH. This builds on our 2018 HLPF side event ‘Reducing inequalities through access to WASH’, and our focus at the Women Deliver conference on WASH as imperative for women’s and girls’ empowerment and human rights.

Tarfalech in front of the new disabled toilets at Edget Bihibret Elementary School, Amhara, Ethiopia.
Tarfalech in front of the new disabled toilets at Edget Bihibret Elementary School, Amhara, Ethiopia.
Image: WaterAid/ Genaye Eshetu

The HLPF sets the precedent for September’s SDGs Summit

In the lead-up to the first-ever SDGs Summit, to be held as part of the UN General Assembly high-level week in September, the world will be looking to this HLPF and its treatment of global inequalities as a bellwether. We’ll be keeping track of how seriously governments and the wider community surrounding the 2030 Agenda engage with issues of inequalities – and how concretely they propose to reduce them, both within and among countries.

If the 2030 Agenda is to be achieved, and, along with it, our goal of reaching everyone, everywhere with WASH by just 11 years from now – the Summit will need to show evidence of a level of ambition in line with the scale of the global crises of extreme poverty, climate change and rising income inequality. This should start in July, with clear indications of how SDG10 will be monitored, financed and implemented, to address discrimination, exclusion and other root causes of unacceptable inequalities in access to both WASH and the improved wellbeing it enables.

Katie Tobin is WaterAid's Advocacy Coordinator in New York @travelingKT

Read our policy brief on SDG 6 and SDG 10

Explore our plans for HLPF

Follow the WaterAid HLPF delegation on Twitter and read their diary blog