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Affordability of water and sanitation needs tracking, UN says

Two men walk past a water supply vehicle distributing water during the World Water Day in Bhakatpur, Nepal, 22 March 2021. International World Water Day is held annually on 22 March as a means of highlighting the importance of freshwater and its management. Bhaktapur was affected heavily by the earthquake of 2015 and is still struggling with rehabilitation and drinking water supplies. (Source: EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA)

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, yet billions of people are being left behind. A new UN report looks at one of the main obstacles: affordability.

As the Covid-19 ravages indiscriminately, a new joint report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) sets out recommendations for measuring and monitoring the affordability of access to WASH products and services.

Currently, there are no universally agreed definitions of affordability, thus no common agreed approach for measuring and monitoring it, WHO WASH expert Richard Johnston told Geneva Solutions.

“If you think about drinking water quality for example, you can go to a water source, take a sample and measure the bacteria and the chemicals in the water and then you have some measure of the water quality. But there are no such test kits for affordability,” he added.

Although enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly that pertaining to clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), affordability is not measured, making it difficult to reach the goals by 2030, according to the report.

With over a third of the world’s population lacking handwashing facilities at home and an estimated 2.2. billion people having no access to safe drinking water, Covid-19 has shone a light on how important it is to have WASH to tackle diseases.

“With better WASH services, you will not only tackle Covid but other diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia malnutrition,” said Johnston.

Beyond the SDGs,  access to clean water and sanitation is also a  human right, recognised by the UN in 2010. The resolution adopted by the General Assembly called for financial resources and technology transfer to provide safe, clean and affordable WASH products and services for all.

Yet huge sections of the global population are still being left behind in their access to WASH. One in four healthcare facilities worldwide has no clean water on site, and an estimated three billion people have no access to handwashing facilities with water and soap at home.

One common method for assessing the affordability of WASH services is by comparing a household’s reported WASH spending as a proportion of the total household expenses, however, the report highlights how inconsistent datasets are.

Recommendations include strengthening data collection and analyses of income and expenditure surveys in the long term.

Targeting the most vulnerable groups. The report states: “the cost of access, whether it is a monthly bill or an investment in household infrastructure, can be a significant barrier to improved access and household budgets may be insufficient to provide access to water sources that meet the national minimum standard.”

The most affected by this are those with low income, struggling to pay for the available WASH goods and services. Besides these groups, “we must also think about people who live in areas where public or high quality water and sanitation systems just do not reach in places that are geographically difficult to access,” said Johnston.

This goes beyond low-income countries, with high income countries particularly in the Arctic regions, such as northern Canada facing similar WASH challenges of affordability and accessibility.

Johnston explained that “places struggling with freezing temperatures just can’t access sewer and so end up facing less effective sanitation solutions, which can also be very expensive.”

Specific populations in wealthier nations such as indigenous and homeless people tend to be vulnerable groups, struggling to access safe and affordable services. Countries like France for example have started monitoring the affordability of WASH services for its homeless population, which allows them to put in place some targeted WASH measures for these vulnerable groups, Johnston emphasised.

Slashing funds in a time of most need. This timely report comes at a time where the United Kingdom announced foreign aid cuts including by more than 80 per cent for overseas WASH products and services.

A leaked memo first sighted by Sky News, warned of backlash over the aid budget cuts including to WASH. Understandably the UK has come under fire when these services are most needed as Covid-19 cases surge and handwashing and hygiene become ever-more critical.

The memo said: "We expect criticism on the reduction in spend, particularly as the UK public views Wash as a priority area for UK aid, because hand hygiene is widely recognised as a critical intervention to counter the spread of Covid-19, and because the cuts are being announced in the year that the UK is hosting Cop26."

When it comes to multilateral funding, which goes to international organisations such as the WHO, spending for WASH is reduced by a whopping 64 per cent.

This is not the only area where the UK plans to extend cuts, slashing budgets of organisations like UNAIDS by more than 80 per cent and a 95 per cent cut in aid funding for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, currently heading up the efforts in significantly reducing polio cases by 99.9 per cent globally.

An estimated two million people each year die from diseases that could have been prevented by adequate WASH. Thus, targeting those who cannot afford the services could prevent these deaths.

The UN’s global goal 6 for clean water and sanitation aims for everyone to have access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030 and as governments strip away their funding this goal inches towards becoming unachievable.

“The hope for this report is to encourage countries and support them with tools to measure and monitor affordability, which takes a bit of work and investment but can help towards reaching the people who need the WASH services the most,” said Johnston.