On World Water Day, focus where it’s needed most

by Fleur Anderson, Head of Campaigns, WaterAid UK | WaterAid - UK
Friday, 21 March 2014 08:15 GMT

A girl pumps water from a well outside her mud house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, June 17, 2011. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

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New research shows that of all the donor aid directed at water and sanitation programmes, just one-quarter of it is going to the countries that need it most

As we approach this year’s World Water Day on 22 March, it’s a moment of particular poignancy for WaterAid.

We know that 768 million people are still without safe drinking water and another 2.5 billion people are without decent toilets – shocking statistics for 2014.

The story gets worse. New research from WaterAid released this week, Bridging the Divide, shows that of all the donor aid directed at water and sanitation programmes, just one-quarter of it is going to the countries that need it most. Most of it goes to countries where most people already have water and sanitation.

It doesn’t make sense. And we need to change this.

For instance, Jordan and Mauritius are both nations on their way to full economic development, with more than 90 per cent coverage on water and sanitation. Yet both receive hundreds of dollars in water and sanitation aid per person living without, each year. In Jordan, aid for water and sanitation per person without amounts to $855. In Mauritius, it’s US $588.

Yet in Ethiopia, where aid for water and sanitation amounts to just $1.56 per person without. In Madagascar, the number is just $0.42. More than half of the population in both of these countries live without safe drinking water and sanitation.

Ethiopia holds special significance for us. It’s 30 years this year since the Band-Aid appeal for that country’s worst famine in a generation. Support poured out from around the world, saving hundreds of thousands of people, but 400,000 more died of hunger, thirst and related illness before the crisis was over.

WaterAid was a brand-new organisation then and some of our first projects were in Ethiopia. Since then, we’ve worked with local partners to install more than 50 water and sanitation projects in the country, providing safe water to 1.2 million people and sanitation to more than half a million.

By almost any measure, Ethiopia is a good example of where good governance and aid can make a dramatic difference. In 1990 only 14 per cent of Ethiopians had safe drinking water, and just over one in 50 people had a toilet. Twenty years later, this has expanded to nearly half with safe water, and one in five with a toilet.

Yet even today, 33,000 children under age five die each year in Ethiopia of diarrhoeal diseases, most of which could have been prevented with safe water, decent latrines and a way for their families to wash their hands properly.

We also know that of the $81 billion in foreign aid pledged by donors over the last decade, as much as $27.6 billion never made it to its destination.

This year, the aid community has a chance to redouble our efforts to bring everyone, everywhere safe water and improved sanitation by 2030.

We are in the final stage of consultation before the UN sets its new Sustainable Development Goals for post-2015, when the existing Millennium Development Goals run out. Technically, globally, we’ve reached the goal to halve the number of people without water but there are dramatic inequalities between regions within this achievement. And we’re sadly, woefully behind on sanitation. Nearly 1 billion people in this world still defecate in the open. 

We have another chance to make water, sanitation and hygiene a central focus – and to help the rest of the world reap the benefits to health, education, productivity, quality of life and dignity that these services bring to those of us in the developed world every day.

Next month WaterAid will join the World Bank, the UN, other NGOs and government ministers from around the globe in Washington, D.C. ahead of the World Bank Spring Meetings, at the Sanitation and Water for All High-Level Meeting, to press for stronger commitments to water and sanitation funding from all sides.

Leaders must address these shortfalls honestly and transparently, and commit to doing more, and doing it better. Otherwise we are failing billions of people around the world who cannot lift themselves out of extreme poverty without these services.