Why WASH matters as we tackle today's water and sanitation crisis

A World Bank project provided a village in Benin access to safe and clean water. Without universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, poverty eradication is inconceivable, according to Darren Saywell of Plan International USA. Photo by: Arne Hoel / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The world is in the midst of a water and sanitation crisis. There are 748 million people without access to clean water and an astonishing 2.5 billion people without access to a basic toilet. Inequalities are an enduring problem; the vast majority of people without sanitation are poorer people living in rural areas. On top of this, indigenous people, those with disabilities and other marginalized groups are more likely to lack these basic services.

This crisis has profound impact on all areas of human development. The World Health Organization estimates that poor water, sanitation and hygiene is the main cause of 28 percent of child deaths worldwide. Diarrhea is the second-biggest killer of children under five years old worldwide, and a quarter of stunting can be attributed to recurrent diarrhea. Sustained access to toilets, good hygiene behavior and safe drinking water are vital to efforts to help children stay in school. The burden of household water collection falls disproportionately on girls, forcing many to miss school to walk hours each day to collect water for their family. When safe and private toilets are not available in schools, girls are more likely to miss class during their monthly periods. This absenteeism can lower grades and lead to girls dropping out of school altogether.

To be effective, we need an approach that reflects the reality of people’s lives by addressing their health, education, water and sanitation and nutrition needs in an integrated way. This is the only way to improve wellbeing and ensure all people in all countries and communities are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have better access to goods and services. But too often, institutional setup and professional blinkers mean that sector challenges are tackled in isolation, compromising our ability to identify synergies and use resources most effectively.

The Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation high-level meeting in Mexico City last month therefore provided a valuable opportunity to address these silos. For the first time, representatives of Sanitation and Water for All, the Global Partnership for Education and International Health Partnership came together to share experiences in turning development cooperation principles into practical action and results.

Global sector partnerships dedicated to fulfilling basic rights and services for all have significantly contributed to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Now, as we prepare for the introduction of ambitious new sustainable development goals to replace the MDGs, these partnerships will become increasingly important in leveraging structural change in the aid architecture. Only they can foster the collaboration and mutual accountability necessary to reach the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

Recognizing that countries and organizations achieve more by working together, Sanitation and Water for All provides a transparent, accountable and results-oriented framework for action based on our common vision — universal access to safe water and adequate sanitation.

SWA focuses attention on the basic building blocks of an effective sector, such as joint WASH-sector planning, investment and accountability frameworks. For example, in Liberia, partners have aligned behind a national WASH compact, improving coordination and increasing effectiveness by working together more closely on program implementation. In Ethiopia, development partners are aligning around country-owned plans and processes, such as the One WASH National Program, which consolidates planning, budgeting and reporting activities in the sector.

Last month, an unprecedented gathering of WASH leaders took place in Washington, D.C. The 3rd SWA high-level meeting drew together World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and 20 ministers of finance from around the world, as well as 35 ministers of water and sanitation, 12 development cooperation representatives and other key stakeholders. There, ministers set an ambitious course for getting water, sanitation and hygiene to their people in coming decades, with over 20 countries pledging to reach universal access by 2030.

SWA is also beginning to see traction on harmonizing the WASH sector’s very complicated monitoring landscape, which will make it easier to track progress.

However, challenges remain. The sector continues to be highly fragmented, with a lack of coordination leading to duplication and inefficiency. Sustainability is another major issue. We struggle to find a balance between building new infrastructure and strengthening developing countries’ abilities to deliver WASH services and keep them running for years to come.

Tackling this requires concerted effort to improve the effectiveness of WASH aid. This means ensuring that support to the sector builds the capacity of governments in developing countries to deliver and sustain safe, reliable water supply and long-term behavior change for hygiene and sanitation — rather than having aid agencies deliver those services themselves. Not only will this improve sector performance, it also offers the best return on investment and opportunities for scale.

SWA partners are united in trying to meet these challenges, thinking about how we work together and exploring ways to strengthen mutual accountability for adherence to the Paris, Accra and Busan principles of effective development cooperation. Discussions in Mexico City made it clear we are not alone, with the Global Partnership for Education and International Health Partnership simultaneously working to put the principles of development effectiveness into practice in the health and education sectors.

As 2015 approaches, and the international community lays out a framework for the eradication of poverty, such joint action has never been more important. Unless we work together, harnessing the power of partnerships to deliver results on the ground, we will never achieve sanitation and water for all. And without universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, the eradication of extreme poverty is inconceivable.

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About the author

  • Darren Saywell

    Darren Saywell heads the WASH program at Plan International USA. He has 20 years operational, research, consultancy and teaching experience and has previously held positions at the Water, Engineering and Development Center in the United Kingdom, the World Health Organization and the International Water Association. In October 2011, he was nominated as the vice-chair for Sanitation and Water for All.