The world underestimates the centrality of water in addressing many of the global issues faced today. From health issues such as covid-19, cholera, Zika virus and neglected tropical diseases, to issues of gender inequality, education, economic recessions and climate change, the centrality of water to addressing global issues cannot be overemphasised.
Clean water is a necessity for everyone and a basic human right. Yet, it remains a luxury for 771 million people across the globe faced with the daily ordeal of walking miles in search of it (see Figure 1).
As I went through the programme for the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, I wasn’t surprised to see several sessions focusing on transboundary water and the connections between water and other sectors. From high-level panels, special sessions, ordinary thematic sessions and side events to the youth space programme, I was grateful to be a speaker in some of these sessions which laid bare how water connects myriad sectors.
There were about 30 sessions on transboundary water, including: a high-level panel on “Exchange Between Transboundary Aquifers on Three Continents”; an ordinary thematic session on “Financing our Future: Shared Funding Mechanisms for Managing Shared Water Resources”; and a side event on “Shared Water in Africa and the Middle East: Regional Cooperation to Defuse Tensions and Share Prosperity”. The thematic session organised by WaterAid and Citizen Alliance—“Youth Voices: Cultivating Our Next-generation Leadership to Strengthen Governance, Water, and Health Outcomes”—paid special attention to the centrality and “interconnectedness” of water. It offered me the opportunity to share the vital roles of youth in driving multi-sectoral initiatives for water, taking inspiration from the actions and impacts of amazing young climate activists and young professionals across the globe.
Why WASH Matters to Health
A health centre without a clean water supply is a death trap! We do not need a reminder on why water matters in health centres. The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inextricable link between WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) and health. As a WASH-centric pandemic, the covid-19 outbreak was a wake-up call for leaders globally, nationally and locally to give more attention to “WASH-in-health centres”. If the world ever needed a trigger to invest in WASH-in-health centres, the pandemic fulfilled that role. The world must not wait for another pandemic to learn this basic lesson. Universal health coverage will not be achieved when patients who are treated in a hospital for minor ailments such as a headache leave the hospital with a deadlier disease, like typhoid or cholera, due to the lack of adequate WASH facilities in the hospital. The statistics are stark and cannot be overlooked:
Putting an end to this scarcity is within the world’s means. In fact, a recent report by the WHO and UNICEF revealed that bringing WASH services to all health facilities and hospitals in the world’s 46 least-developed countries would cost about US$9.6 billion over a decade, whereas in tracking covid-19 response funding, Devex revealed that over US$21.7 trillion were committed to combating the pandemic in just six months (from January 1st 2020 to June 27th 2020).
Why WASH Matters to Education
To achieve an inclusive and quality education for all, access to “WASH-in-schools” is crucial.
Many of us may have imagined the fate of those school girls who start menstruating while in class but do not have access to a safe toilet to maintain privacy or to running water to clean themselves. In a bid to save face and hide from the shame and stigmatisation that comes with such scenarios, the reality is that these girls would rather be absent from school on days when they are menstruating, and in cases where they are in school, they are likely to be less engaged in school activities.
Considering how many women and girls are menstruating on any one day, and the number of schools without adequate WASH facilities, the number of school girls who actually miss school days during their period will be staggering and this is not peculiar to only developing or least-developed countries. According to recent survey by Plan International UK, nearly 2 million girls aged 14–21 (64% of this age group) in the UK have missed a part day or full day of school because of their period . The dreams and ambitions of girls experiencing such disruption to their learning are more likely to be cut short and their rights to education denied—a situation that could have been averted by simply making adequate WASH facilities accessible to children in schools.
Why WASH Matters to Gender Equality
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by lack of WASH services. Realising gender rights starts with realising human rights to water and sanitation. The burden of walking long miles in search of water tends to fall on women and girls, who at the same time are faced with a high risk of physical and sexual abuse when they walk lonely bush paths to streams and rivers.
The lack of access to clean water and sanitation services is not just a violation of human rights, it is also a form of discrimination against women and girls. However, this is also an issue in areas where young boys and men are saddled with the responsibility of walking miles in search of clean drinking water, and are in turn prevented from going to school on such days.
The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 target of “ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life” is off-track because a woman who spends most of her time taking care of her sick children (suffering from water-related illness) or searching for clean drinking water will most likely not have the time to effectively participate in key decision-making structures in society. As reported in a UN Women publication, “ The disproportionate responsibility women and girls bear as primary users, providers, and managers of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) at the household level is yet to be matched by a commensurate representation in WASH-related decision-making ” (see Figure 2). This is a stark reminder to gender rights activists that water should be central in advocacies on gender equality.
Why WASH Matters to Economic Growth
A recent report by the World Bank showed that a lack of clean water limits economic growth by one-third in heavily polluted areas and threatens human and environmental well-being. The report called for immediate global, national and local-level attention to the water crisis, which is faced by both developed and developing countries.
Productive time is lost when young, innovative people spend most of their days in search of water rather than being in school or fulfilling their potential in employment. Empowering women and girls helps economic growth, but what will become of an economy where the women and girls are more often than not saddled with the responsibility of searching for the closest river or stream to fetch water? How can the economy of a city, district or nation grow when the residents do not have access to a sustainable water supply? How can such cities, districts or nations attract investors and industries for economic growth?
Industry leaders across the globe should therefore be at the forefront of advocating for improved access to water and sanitation in their locality, to facilitate ease of doing business and attract more investors.
Why WASH Matters to Climate Resilience
The climate crisis is a water crisis. Too much water or too little water—either way, climate change impacts us all through water, from unusually heavy rainfall resulting in flooding in Bangladesh to prolonged drought that has left millions on the brink of famine in East Africa .
To develop climate resilience, water should be at the heart of all climate policy and decision-making. It is safe to say that any Nationally Determined Contribution without a WASH target is incomplete.
Across the globe, there are fantastic young climate activists leading amazing movements and ideas to take climate action and tackle climate change. It is high time we transferred and incorporated such activism and movements into the WASH sector.
Multi-sectoral Voices Converging at the “Water Centre”
Just as water connects with different sectors, it also connects countries. Across the world, 153 countries share rivers, lakes and aquifers, and 592 transboundary aquifers have been inventoried by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme to date. However, many of these countries with shared water resources—particularly shared aquifers—do not have functioning water-management agreements in place.
The transboundary nature and flow of water has made cooperation inevitable. With over 60% of global freshwater flowing between and connecting countries, there is a need for greater cooperation over our shared resources to ensure global and equitable access to water, and in turn, get back on track to achieve the SDGs.
To summarise, there is no gainsaying that without clean water we cannot achieve the other SDGs relating to health, education and sustainable cities and communities; nor can we fight climate change, the covid-19 pandemic or inequality. Against this backdrop, there is a cogent need to bring in the voices of global leaders across the various sectors to amplify the voices in the water sector. Imagine the result we can achieve when we channel the vigour and innovations of the young leaders across various sectors into the water sector, and with more countries collectively managing their shared water resources effectively. That is hitting the SDG goldmine!