By Catarina de Albuquerque
LISBON, Portugal, Jul 28 2021 – The water we drink and the air we breathe are the basis of life. With universal access to clean water and sanitation, we will be healthier, our economies will be stronger, gender equality will be more achievable, and more children will stay in school.
However, the many benefits of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene are under threat from unfair political decisions that have often left the poorest in urban and rural areas paying more for off-grid water and sanitation than people with formal access to these services in their homes.
Already two billion people, or 1 in 4, don’t have access to safely managed drinking water in their homes, nearly half the world’s population lack safely managed sanitation, and 2.3 billion people can’t wash their hands at home. Indeed, daily access to water and sanitation is a distant aspiration for much of the world population, especially for women, girls and the most marginalized and vulnerable families and communities.
So how can we ensure everyone on the planet has access to water and sanitation by 2030?
We must first address one of the most fundamental barriers to progress: poor governance that has blocked progress towards universal access, and driven an increase in service inequalities in many countries.
Water and sanitation are human rights, meaning that access to these services must be affordable and not compromise the ability to pay for other essential needs. And people are prepared to pay a fair and affordable price for safe and reliable water and sanitation services, which are so critical for hydration, personal hygiene, cleaning, and cooking.
Yet for many people, the price of access to an affordable, convenient, safe water source is simply unaffordable. In some countries, people can spend as much as half of their income on water, a resource so many of us take for granted.
In high- and low-income countries alike, those in middle and higher income households pay relatively low tariffs for piped water, while those living in slums aren’t connected by the authorities to the formal network.
These communities often have no choice but to queue for hours to get their water from tanker trucks or street vendors, paying up to 100 times more for water of unverifiable quality and safety.
More unfairly, large agricultural and industrial water users, which use over 90 percent of existing freshwater, sometimes have access to subsidized water prices and actually pay less than individuals.
When the poorest people end up paying more for water and sanitation than everyone else this hinders human development and obviously exacerbates the inequalities that leave huge sections of the global population behind in their access to a productive, dignified and healthy life, including to water, sanitation and hygiene.
In the absence of official water services, people (mostly women and girls) will often collect dirty, contaminated water from streams, ponds and unprotected wells, and they will pay an exorbitant price with their health, time and productivity.
If all those who could afford it paid fair water and sanitation prices, and the money was invested properly in expanding and improving services, it would lift people out of a negative cycle of poverty and ensure that women have more time to reach their social and economic potential.
In the end, there is no healthy economy without a healthy population where everyone can enjoy their rights to water and sanitation. It would also be beneficial for the economy and for businesses.
Investing in water and sanitation systems is a no-brainer opportunity to serve a huge market, while benefiting both households and service providers.
A recent study shows that access to toilets with safely managed sanitation could yield up to $86 billion per year in greater productivity and reduced health costs; basic hygiene facilities could mean an extra $45 billion per year; and taps in the home could equate to an annual return of $37 billion globally.
So, where do we start? Firstly, governments need to lift the existing legal and political barriers and extend water and sewerage services to slums and informal settlements to ensure a reliable and constant water supply, permanent handwashing facilities, adequate toilets and safe disposal of human waste.
Governments should also invest the necessary resources in making access to water and sanitation a reality for those living in rural communities. We need the political will and the political wisdom from those in power to look at the situation in a holistic manner, and make sure that those who have been left off the formal grid can get connected, independently of their tenure status. Human rights are human rights.
Next, governments should implement fair tariff structures that charge higher-income households and agricultural or industrial users more for water and sanitation to generate the necessary revenue to bring fairly priced and affordable services to those most in need.
Higher prices for big users would also force a reduction in water consumption. These measures would have immeasurable benefits for all the people that have no choice but to queue at a communal water pump to get water for the family, or share a public toilet with many families.
Everyone, everywhere needs to be able to access water and sanitation for a fair price. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also vital for creating jobs, boosting business, and reducing the long-term burden put on government budgets.
And it’s within reach, if we have the political will to make it happen.
The writer is CEO of Sanitation and Water for All