By Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO, Sanitation and Water for All

It’s a new year and many of us are reflecting on lessons from last year. If nothing else, we have learned that business as usual is not an option. Transformation is the only way forward – and water, sanitation and hygiene are at the heart of how we transform. It is so basic, so fundamental – without securing access to water, sanitation and hygiene, our ability to achieve the entire SDG agenda will be undermined; our ability to respond and recover from this global pandemic will be weak; and our ability to build resilient societies with enabling environments for all to prosper and to claim their human rights will be hampered. Now, less than 10 years away from our 2030 deadline, we have a chance to course correct.

A critical part of this course correction must include mobilization of financial resources to ensure universal access to water and sanitation. The predicted amount we need for universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030 is about USD 114 billion per year, and this only covers capital expenses for basic services. We need more and we need better.

For instance, with decades of underinvestment in the sector, particularly outside urban areas, rural and smaller towns have been systematically neglected. Access to services in these areas is often deplorable. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities, and has also exposed the fragile situation of service providers in many countries.

Water, sanitation and hygiene is a critical preventive measure against COVID-19, and future pandemics. However, despite everything we know about the central role of water and sanitation in the fight against COVID-19, we have not seen an increase in financing for the sector. In fact, WASH is receiving a much smaller share of funding in comparison with other areas and this share continues to, surprisingly, decrease. Despite a global pandemic. Despite headlines and warnings asking people to wash their hands.

We also need more attention and investment targeted at the interlinkages between climate action and water, sanitation and hygiene. There are ambitious, and urgent, targets for climate investments – but the discussion on water and sanitation in climate, including regarding finance, is but a gentle murmur. Less than 3 percent of overall climate finance goes to water related projects, and of those funds, only a tenth is directed towards projects directed at ensuring water and sanitation services.[1]

This needs to change.

Water and sanitation infrastructure are in themselves climate adaptation and mitigation measures: flood and drought management make cities more resilient, wastewater treatment protects ecosystems and biodiversity, recycling of waste water increases water available for agriculture, contributing to food security – in short, we cannot build climate resilient systems without more attention to water and sanitation.

A systematic problem in financing for water, sanitation and hygiene is that too often, financing mechanisms or subsidies benefit those who already have access, rather than focusing on those who have been left behind. This is unacceptable, and it must change.

Additionally, there is another critical aspect for investments: political leadership and good governance. This is the backbone of an enabling environment not only for delivering access to water and sanitation, but also sustainability – and it does not come for free! Beyond pipes, taps and latrines, we need a strong legislative framework, comprehensive policies that promote human rights, protect civic space, address corruption and inequalities, and ensure participation and transparency. Robust accountability mechanisms also require reliable resourcing. Ensuring the enabling environment for water and sanitation has proven positive impacts in other development areas – it is a win-win investment.

And then there is the role of international cooperation. The challenges we face are interconnected, and they are global – the solutions we seek must be grounded in solidarity, based on quality evidence, and aim towards more integrated approaches.

How can development assistance help not only generate the urgently needed financial resources for the sector, but also contribute to the wider enabling environment for the realization of the rights to water and sanitation? There is a role for external support agencies in advocating for the political prioritization of water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as supporting better learning across regions, and across sectors. We need to see more consistent support through international cooperation for effective and sustainable accountability mechanisms, so that we hold all actors responsible the commitments they have made, and States accountable for their legally binding human rights obligations.

Water, sanitation and hygiene must be elevated in political agendas both nationally and globally, and we must achieve the rights to water and sanitation for all, everywhere and always.

This article was authored by Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO, Sanitation and Water for All (SWA). 


[1] “The water sector receives a substantial share of committed adaptation related finance – 43% of the annual total since 2011, on average – with funding standing at USD 11 billion in 2018 for water and wastewater management. Water-focused mitigation related finance is growing but is more modest: USD 3 billion in 2018 for wastewater and waste combined (Figure ES2). Since finance for mitigation is far greater than for adaptation, water received a low share of climate finance overall (less than 3%).” WaterAid, Just add water: a landscape analysis of climate finance for water, November 2020, page 7.