Leading firms have gone from asking why Global Goal 6 matters to offering their help, says WaterAid’s boss Barbara Frost. We need more to take the plunge
I have just returned from the World Water Week meeting in Stockholm where those with a commitment to bringing clean water and safe sanitation to everyone everywhere, gather to discuss progress and ideas.
It was really encouraging to see the corporate presence continue to grow, both in terms of the number of attendees and the share of sessions that involved the private sector. This is because the task ahead in terms of reaching each and every person, no matter who or where they are, with water and toilets is too big for the public sector and civil society to achieve alone.
Under Global Goal 6 set last year by the United Nations and agreed by the world’s governments, we have until 2030 to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. That gives us 14 years to reach the 2.3 billion of the world’s population – or one in three – who currently don’t have a decent toilet and the one in 10 who don’t have clean water.
Huge progress has been made over the last quarter of a century–last year an extra 2.6 billion people had access to clean water, compared to 1990, and 2.1 billion gained a toilet – and the private sector has played a crucial role in that. But to finish the task in time will be challenging and business as usual just will not suffice. Many of those who still have to drink dirty water or defecate on waste ground are among the most vulnerable and hard to reach so we need to be innovative, creative and bold in our approach. We need to find new partnerships, sources of funding and champions for our cause. And, increasingly, we are looking to the private sector.
This year in Stockholm the energy for getting on with the job in hand was striking – the overwhelming message was implementation, implementation, implementation. There was also a distinct change in mindset from the business community, which no longer seems to be asking “why” water and sanitation matter for sustainable growth but “how” and “what” to do.
In terms of investment in water and sanitation the argument is clear. It has been estimated that for every £1 invested into providing clean water, there is £4 return in terms of increased productivity. The figure is even higher for investments in sanitation.
With this in mind, earlier this year WaterAid joined a coalition including Unilever and Unicef to launch Wash4Work, which hopes to bring in businesses as part of a systemic approach to tackling water and sanitation issues. We need those businesses that already realise the importance of a sustainable clean water source, good sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as Wash) to their future to spread the word in their sphere of influence.
Progressive companies recognise the importance of Wash in their supply chains and are beginning to invest in access to water and sanitation to improve worker wellbeing, increase productivity and build resilient supply chains. It also helps ensure that they continue to have the support and social licence from communities to operate. Sorting out water and sanitation issues can have a positive impact on many other issues that can threaten a company’s future success - from labour and human rights to sustainable agriculture - and should be integrated into existing company programmes.
WaterAid has always enjoyed close working relationships with the private sector – our very roots are in the UK water industry – and our partnerships go far beyond the proffered chequebook.
We like to view our corporate partnerships holistically, looking at every way in which their input can help bring the day of universal access closer. While clearly every charity needs financial donations to carry out its work, we also look at how to share our expertise with a corporate to help improve its impact on access to water and sanitation. We also look at what expertise a corporate partner brings to the table that could be helpful to our partners.
So, for example, we work closely with Yorkshire Water, whose staff not only raise money for us but have also shared their technical expertise with our partners. Experts from Yorkshire Water are working with 20 Ethiopian utilities on reducing water leakage, improving water quality and asset management. This capacity-building work helps strengthen the skill set of utility workers in the countries where we work and is vital for long term sustainability.
Our work with the H&M Conscious Foundation finances improvements in Wash in the countries where many suppliers to high street fashion retailers are based. Project Sunrise, one of the initiatives that we are working on together, is aiming to renovate or install public toilets across Dhaka, a city where there is a large slum population living with limited access to toilets.
In other areas, the H&M Conscious Foundation has helped us to install toilets in schools, which is not just a “nice thing to do” but makes complete sense from an economic point of view. Schools without access to water and toilets are by their nature unhygienic places that put their pupils at risk of becoming ill. If those children become ill then someone, usually their mother, needs to take time off work to care for them and so there is likely to have a knock-on effect on their workplace, particularly as women make up 70-80% of garment supply chain workers. There is also, of course, the risk that in caring for their children, the mothers fall ill, necessitating more time off work.
Every corporate that we work with brings its individual strengths and skills to the table, enhancing WaterAid’s work in so many ways. It is only by working together that we will achieve the historic moment of everyone everywhere having access to clean water, decent toilets and the ability to keep clean.
To know more about how to help please visit wash4work.
Barbara Frost has been chief executive of WaterAid since 2005. The international development agency’s vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene and works in 37 countries.NGO water resources United Nations WaterAid partnerships SDGs