A Moment to Celebrate Progress on Water and Sanitation

01/06/2016 15:37 | Updated 01 June 2016

Amid all the recent headlines around the UK's overseas aid, there was one very positive one last week: evidence of tens of millions of lives transformed.

The Independent Commission on Aid Impact has given the Department for International Development a green/amber rating for its aid for water, sanitation and hygiene, calling it a significant contribution to development.

Make no mistake: Lives have been saved with these programmes. Some 315,000 children under five die each year of diarrhoea directly linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. A newborn dies every minute of infection which can often be prevented with clean water and rigorous hygiene practice, including midwives who are able to wash their hands with soap.

Midwife Julianna Msoffe washes her hands in the now-functioning basins at Kiomboi Hospital, Tanzania. The hospital was featured in WaterAid's Deliver Life appeal, a match-funding arrangement with DFID. WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Lives saved with clean water

The Commission has found that DFID has reached nearly 63 million people with clean water, safe toilets or hygiene promotion since 2011. That is nearly the equivalent of the entire UK population. And to achieve this, DFID has spent an average of just 1.6% of its total bilateral overseas development aid budget, or £200 million annually.

This is an achievement to celebrate, but the work is not yet done, as evidenced by the amber in the Commission's findings. Though great strides have been made, what is needed now is to make sure these programmes last.

Sustainability - ensuring that programmes are maintained beyond the length of donor funding - is a challenge for everyone working in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. Making sure that taps and toilets continue to function means going beyond an initial spend on infrastructure. That's true here in the UK, and it's true in developing countries as well.

To do this, developing countries need the support to build up their own systems to finance the construction and operation of water and sanitation infrastructure, and to hire, train and pay skilled staff to maintain and improve it. National governments need to make water, sanitation and hygiene a political priority and finance these programmes accordingly. This is part of WaterAid's advocacy, and an approach which is contained in our sustainability framework.

An effective use of aid

This requires investment, and WaterAid has been calling on DFID to increase the percentage of overseas development aid dedicated to water, sanitation and hygiene because, put simply, this is an extremely effective use of aid.

For every £1 spent, at least £4 is delivered in increased productivity. Conversely, the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene carries a high cost, estimated for African countries to be more in lost GDP than the entire continent gets in development aid.

DFID is a vital partner for WaterAid. Water, sanitation and hygiene are the bedrock of all development; families and communities forced to go without access to these life essentials are less healthy and more deeply rooted in poverty.

Without clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, children are less likely to complete their education, and girls and women are further disempowered, their time taken up and their health threatened by dangerous journeys to fetch water and to find a private place to relieve themselves. It's also hard to engage in income-generating work or care for your family if you're constantly ill from diarrhoea or having to care for sick relatives.

Investments worth making

Futures have been made brighter with these programmes, too. Clean water and good sanitation, combined with good hygiene practices like handwashing with soap, keeps people healthier and more productive. More girls stay in school longer when there are safe, private toilets to use; girls who complete their education are more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, and more likely to raise healthier, better-educated children themselves, contributing to lifting their communities out of poverty.

In short, these are investments worth making.

Eight months ago, the world's leaders made a promise, to work to eradicate extreme poverty and create a fairer, more sustainable world, through the UN Global Goals. Among those goals is one to provide safe water and sanitation for everyone, everywhere.

That means even those who are hardest to reach, because of age, disability, caste or remote or rural locations. And it means keeping those programmes running - it isn't enough to say you've reached millions, if many of those find the water supply fails with no means of repair.

Keep the promises made

The leaders of the world's wealthiest countries met last week in Japan at the G7 summit. The Ise-Shima progress report on development commitments shows that these countries have worked together through their aid programmes to support progress in health, education, food security, the elimination and control of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and vaccine-preventable diseases, delivering water and sanitation and improving the environment. The UK has been praised for meeting its commitments on aid funding and transparency.

The UK has been a world leader in these efforts to make the world a better, fairer, healthier place for the next generation. That's something we should all be proud of.


Baby Agnes was one of the first babies born at Kiomboi Hospital after the water and sanitation project was complete. WaterAid/Ernest Randriarimalala

Midwives in Liverpool, UK and Kiomboi, Tanzania have much in common - except, until recently, their access to safe, clean water. WaterAid recently completed a project to bring clean water, good sanitation and hygiene training to Kiomboi Hospital.