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OPINION: Action needed: Time is running out for global water ambitions

by Sarina Prabasi | WaterAid
Thursday, 4 July 2019 13:35 GMT

Women carry pitchers filled with water from an opening made to filter water next to a polluted lake in Thane, India June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Prashant Waydande

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At current rates of progress, we are more than 100 years behind schedule to get safe water to everyone by 2030. The situation is now as dire as it is desperate.

Sarina Prabasi is chief executive officer of WaterAid America.

Billions of people still live and die in water and sanitation poverty–a direct result of decisions taken, or not taken, by those in power.

The stats are as awful as they are endless; 785 million people don’t have clean water close to home, 2.3 billion people don’t have a toilet and, in the least developed countries, over 70% do not have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water.

Next week, the UN meets in New York to review progress against reducing inequality by 2030. The mood cannot be self-congratulatory. By almost every measure we will miss the targets agreed to by leaders in 2015. It is the lack of commitment to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) that is holding that ambition back.

Access to water, sanitation and hygiene underpins the entire development agenda. It stretches across health, nutrition, education and equality, as a fundamental building block to a prosperous future. Without these three essentials, an individual cannot thrive.  

Recent figures from WHO and Unicef do point to signs of progress. 2.1 billion people gained access to at least a basic toilet since 2000, and between 2015 and 2017 the number of people without access to clean water fell from 1 in 9, to 1 in 10.

But it is hard to fathom how we will reach the hundreds of millions of people who still lack access by 2030. Not only is progress far too slow, but the figures mask the fact that many of the positive increases have been disproportionally at the upper ends of society. The gap between the richest and poorest in many countries is widening, leaving the most marginalized even further behind. 

It is those who are already disadvantaged in society who are the most likely to lack access to WASH, which deepens the inequality they face.

Women and girls often fare the worst. When water is scarce, it’s nearly always women who face the hardship of walking long distances to collect water and miss educational and economic opportunities. If all of the time that women and girls spend collecting water each day were added together, it would come to 200 million hours. Time not spent in school or at work.

And when they do attend school, it is estimated that 335 million girls go to a school without water and soap available for washing their hands when changing sanitary products. Schools without reliable water, sanitation and hygiene facilities can have a devastating impact on a child’s learning.

This is not an insurmountable problem. Those furthest behind have the most to gain if WASH is prioritized, both by country governments and in overseas development aid. What is problematic is the lack of political will and financing for services that are a basic human right.

This crisis demands a significant increase in international aid from high income countries, but also a transformation in how money is raised and distributed in developing countries to ensure it is invested in essential services for the people who need it the most.

To maintain the status quo is unacceptable. We have until 2030 to turn things around. Failure to do so will stall global development and ensure the sustainable development goals remain an elusive and unobtainable pipe dream.