Universal water goals impossible without ‘radical’ funding, says WHO, U.N.

Collecting water at the Gashora Girls Academy

Universal access to safe water and sanitation is achievable by 2030, but only if countries drastically step up their funding to fill the “gap between aspiration and reality,” the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N.-Water warned in a new report today that analyzed data from 75 countries and 25 external support agencies.

According to estimates by the World Bank, countries need to triple global investments in water and sanitation infrastructure to $114 billion per year just to meet the first two targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – universal and equitable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). That amount does not even account for operating and maintenance costs.

But “beyond this global figure, there are large variations in financing needs from region to region and country to country,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and Guy Ryder, chairman of U.N.-Water and director-general of the International Labor Organization, wrote in the report. “Hence, financing strategies are needed based on evidence and realistic proposals for how to fill the gaps.”

And those gaps are huge. According to the WHO, nearly 2 billion people still use sources of drinking water contaminated with feces, which puts them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

“Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause more than 500,000 diarrheal deaths each year and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma,” Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of public health, environmental and social determinants of health, said in a press release.

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Additionally, lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation and hygiene has been found to exacerbate poverty, particularly among women and girls. Not only are the health hazards associated with contaminated water a financial stress, but the hours spent collecting water each day prevent women and children from more productive activities such as starting businesses or going to school. Lack of safe toilets often causes girls to drop out of school once menstruation begins and puts women and girls at increased risk of physical and sexual abuse.

The urgent need for safe drinking water and sanitation is not lost on governments. In fact, according to the report, countries have increased their WASH budgets by an average of 4.9 percent every year for the last three years. However, more than 80 percent of countries reported that they still lack sufficient funding to meet national WASH targets, which in many developing countries fall short of SDG 6.

According to the report, the funding shortfall isn’t the only problem. Existing funding is not being used efficiently to achieve financial sustainability to reach the unserved and maintain services. Nearly 20 percent of the countries analyzed in the report indicated a “lack of any mechanism to cover operational financial gaps,” which causes them to put off maintenance. That in turn, leads to more systems deteriorating and failing faster. By some estimates, around 40 percent of water points fail within two to five years.

Governments aren’t the only ones struggling to implement intentions. Although two-thirds of external support agencies – including development banks, U.N. agencies and other nongovernmental organizations – said that “reducing inequalities in access and services to the poorest and most vulnerable” was a “very high priority,” only 25 percent of WASH aid disbursements in 2015 went to basic not large systems – a proxy indicator for aid that reaches unserved populations and the poor, especially in rural areas.

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Unfortunately, the WHO and U.N.-Water fear that a decline in global commitments for WASH since 2012 – from $10.4 billion to $8.2 billion in 2015 – foreshadow a decline in WASH official development assistance spending as well, despite a $1.1 billion increase from 2012 to 2015, from $6.3 billion to $7.4 billion.

Still, “this is a challenge we have the ability to solve,” Ryder said in a press release.

As proof, the report pointed to the 147 countries that met the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing the proportion of people without improved water sources by half, as well as the 95 countries that did the same regarding sanitation.

However, the SDG targets are significantly more ambitious, requiring “collective, coordinated and innovative efforts to mobilize even higher levels of funding from all sources,” including taxes, household tariffs, and donations, without placing undue burden on the most vulnerable populations.

“Despite the enormous challenges faced by the global WASH community, innovations in technology, finance and governance show that these challenges can be overcome and that the SDGs can be achieved,” the report concluded.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.