Clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are essential to protect people from infectious diseases like COVID-19, and help them adapt to the impacts of our changing climate.

Universal access to sustainable WASH facilities underpins many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but it is frequently neglected and millions of people still do not have access to these life-saving essentials.

Inadequate WASH services and poor wastewater management are responsible for as much as 10% of the global disease burden, contributing to nearly two million preventable deaths each year. Poor services also mean that women and girls, in particular, miss out on school or opportunities to earn their own income because they bear more of the burden when it comes to unpaid care and collecting water.

According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme*:

1 in 4
people lack safely managed drinking water

3.6 billion people lack safely managed sanitation

billion people do not have access to basic hygiene facilities

*based on a snapshot of the world in 2020

WaterAid, in collaboration with Vivid Economics, has conducted research and analysis to determine the economic case for investing in water, sanitation and hygiene, and how such investments can contribute to a healthy, just and environmentally-sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resulting report, Mission-critical, found that achieving universal access to WASH can unlock trillions of dollars of value over the next two decades. Between 2021 and 2040, achieving universal safely managed water supplies can yield net benefits of $37 billion per year, while universal safely managed sanitation would unlock net benefits of $86 billion. These gains would also have substantial health and time-saving benefits for women and girls, and would prevent up to 6 billion cases of diarrhoea and 12 billion cases of parasitic worms every year.

Likewise, the research also found that every $1 spent on making WASH infrastructure resilient to flooding could avoid at least $62 in flood restoration costs – demonstrating that WASH investments are crucial for building climate resilience – as well as preventing life-threatening contamination of water sources.

Mission-critical signals the need for a major international effort by governments, businesses, donors and civil society to mobilise increased funding for climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and services. It is mission-critical to a healthy, just and environmentally sustainable COVID-19 recovery.

To achieve all this, WaterAid makes the following calls to action:

  • Governments, international organisations, donors and business should lead the way in providing substantially increased and sustained investments in water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and services in low-income (LICs) and low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs) in 2021 and 2022.
  • This funding should be central to financing the annual $229 billion capital requirement for LICs and LMICs to restore progress and be on track to achieve SDG 6 by 2030. 
  • Fiscal stimulus packages should include financing of the $6.5 billion required to ensure every healthcare facility in least developed countries has access to safe WASH services, for pandemic preparedness, health system-strengthening and the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
  • G20 governments should urgently phase out their $580 billion annual subsidies to fossil fuels and redirect these funds to support a healthy and green economic stimulus in LICs and LMICs. 
  • High income countries (HICs) should lead a 200% increase in official development assistance (ODA) to water, sanitation and hygiene in 2021 and 2022. This increase should support the fiscal stimulus for COVID-19 recovery in LICs and LMICs, and be consistent with global goal 17 (partnership). The increase in ODA should also be part of a “race-to-the-top” to realise and surpass the 50-year-old pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on ODA. 
  • All HICs should fulfil their responsibilities to provide new and additional climate finance that complements this increased ODA and is in line with the $100 billion annual commitment. There should also be substantial increases in grant-based adaptation funding to WASH in LICs and LMICs.
  • Multilateral and bilateral donors and private sector investors should strengthen their collaboration to create an environment where increased water investments benefit the poorest and most vulnerable communities in climate change hotspots. 
  • HICs, multilateral donors and private creditors should provide comprehensive debt cancellation to debt distressed LICs and LMICs. 
  • G20 governments should reallocate special drawing rights to LICs and LMICs to support the fiscal stimulus for economic recovery from COVID-19 and enable investment in WASH infrastructure and services.

Top image: Teodora Nzingo shows how flood waters have seeped into water storage tanks and filled up pit latrines, causing more flooding. Kigamboni, Tanzania. January 2020.