Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.
By Allison Kooser
There are so many factors that are critical to improving the quality of life around the world—education, shelter, political stability, and economic growth, to name a few. As a global community, we are right to invest heavily in programs and initiatives that seek to make these services and structures available and accessible to all people.
But while these elements, and many more like them, are absolutely critical to wellbeing, water and sanitation are critical to life itself. As we work to improve economic access, education, technological connectivity, financial literacy, and infrastructure around the world, we must always keep health and life in mind. Even the best development initiatives are useless if citizens aren’t living long enough to take advantage of them.
The Water and Sanitation Crisis
Around the world today, “2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services.” For these people, clean water doesn’t come out of a faucet at home, and it might not even be available within walking distance. Clean water is a precious commodity, and one that is painfully out of reach.
When water is available, it is often far away—meaning that women have to spend large portions of their days traveling to retrieve a few gallons of water to then ration across their entire family. About 263 million people spend more than 30 minutes traveling to collect water. And those that can walk to a well or a water source are the lucky ones; another 159 million people still collect water directly from surface water sources. Without access to clean water, nearly 1.8 billion people drink water from a source that is contaminated with feces, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. These health risks are severe, preventable, and made even more catastrophic when coupled with inadequate health services and medical treatment.
Simultaneously, the majority of the world doesn’t have access to safely managed sanitation, and 2.3 billion people still lack even the most basic sanitation services. Without toilets, latrines, or any sort of sanitation system, nearly 900 million people continue to practice open defecation. Without sufficient access to either clean water or sufficient sanitation, more than 800 children die each day from preventable diseases. We simply cannot stand idly by while so many children suffer and die from illnesses that we know how to prevent.
In 2015, the World Economic Forum declared that the global water crisis is the “biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade.”This enormous global challenge inspired Sustainable Development Goal 6: “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” This movement to address water, sanitation, and hygiene (known as WASH) is one we must all join in order to make progress on all of our development goals.
Starting with Water
Much like peace and justice, water and sanitation are foundational elements to a flourishing society. Without clean water and sufficient sanitation, health, education and livelihoods all suffer. When children are constantly ill because of contaminated drinking water, they cannot go to school. And the hours families spend each day walking to collect water are hours that they cannot use to work or study. As USAID noted, “Ensuring the availability of safe water to sustain natural systems and human life is integral to the success of development objectives, foreign policy goals and national security interests.”
Water, Sanitation, and Health
Countless studies have measured the impact that water and sanitation have on health, resulting in conclusions like the one found in a 2014 report: “[This approach] confirms the important role of the provision of safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene to protect health.”
To achieve any health initiatives, communities must first ensure that they have access to clean water and sanitation. Without these most basic needs met, people are at severe risk of waterborne illnesses and diarrheal diseases. And for those that are already hungry or undernourished, these illnesses can be devastating.
For example, cholera and other diarrheal diseases are “responsible for some 1.8 million deaths each and every year,” and disproportionally affect children.
In addition to illnesses caused by consuming contaminated water, people are also at risk of water-washed diseases—infections caused by poor personal hygiene. These illnesses—things like dysentery, scabies, trachoma, leprosy, and conjunctivitis—cause blindness, open sores, and painful skin conditions.
Water, Sanitation, and Education
After researching water, sanitation, and education, UNICEF noted that we could gain an estimated 1.9 billion school days if we achieved our goals related to safe water and sanitation and reduced the incidence of diarrheal illness. By addressing water and sanitation, we make it possible for more kids to go to school, grow, learn, and break the cycle of poverty for themselves, their families, and their communities.
In addition, accessible water and sanitation reduce the need for children to spend long hours walking for water, a task that often falls to girls. As research has noted, “Providing water closer to homes increases girls’ free time and boosts their school attendance.”
Finally, by improving the water and sanitation facilities at schools themselves, we can make it possible for children, and especially girls, to stay in school as they grow. While “all children need a sanitary and hygienic learning environment, the lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools has a stronger negative impact on girls than on boys. Girls need safe, clean, separate and private sanitation facilities in their schools, especially as they reach puberty.” By investing in these school improvements, we make it possible for children to go to and stay in school.
Water, Sanitation, and Livelihoods
In addition to improving health and education, access to WASH is “critical to increasing the income of individuals and households living in poverty.” In the same way that reducing the time spent collecting water benefits girls in school, it is also a “critical first step in the economic empowerment of poor women.”
Research conducted in line with the Millennium Development Goals (the set of development metrics that preceded the Sustainable Development Goals) indicated that “meeting the MDG targets on water and sanitation alone would save 3.2 billion adult working days and 443 million school days annually, increasing workforce productivity and long-term earning potential.” There’s no doubt that as we seek to end extreme poverty and create sustainable livelihoods, water and sanitation play a crucial role.
How to Solve the Crisis: Collaboration
Achieving SDG 6, water and sanitation for all, is an expensive and challenging undertaking. Like many of our most pressing development initiatives, water and sanitation require significant investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and, importantly, ongoing training on how to use these new water and sanitation systems correctly.
WASH initiatives undertaken by organizations around the world have sought to build wells, provide toilets, dig latrines, purify water, and more. Other projects focus on training communities to use and maintain these facilities so that they do not fall into disrepair or disuse. Still other investments have gone toward hygiene awareness, encouraging healthy behaviors through creative campaigns. Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene—much like extreme poverty itself—are challenges that will require our collective, collaborative efforts. It is too big of a problem with too significant of an impact for any one person or group to be left to solve it on their own.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum wrote a piece on the importance of collaboration in achieving the SDGs. In it, they wrote, “We do not yet know just how things will unfold, but one thing is for sure: the scale, scope and complexity of the economic and social transformation to come will be such that no one sector—government, business, civil society or academia—will be able to manage the transformation alone. We’re going to need some surprising alliances that bring different sectors together if we are to overcome its challenges.”
This is certainly the case for the water crisis.
We must work collaboratively—as organizations, business, governments, academics, and individuals—to solve this massive health, wellness, environmental, and economic challenge.
Moving Forward Together
Opportunity has found a role to play in addressing WASH around the world—seeking intentional partnerships to bring water and sanitation to our clients. We believe that everyone deserves clean water and sanitation, we know what access to these resources can make possible, and we are proud to collaborate with other thought leaders and technicians to end this global crisis.
We know that we cannot do it alone. We are grateful for our partners who spend their lives developing the most innovative and sustainable solutions for clean water and sanitation, just as we spend our lives developing financial tools and partnerships that allow us to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Together, our work is helping to provide clean water, improve sanitation, and ultimately, end extreme poverty.