22/12/2017 15:00 GMT | Updated 22/12/2017 15:00 GMT

What Water And Sanitation Can Learn From Facebook


As I look back on this year, and reflect upon what’s before us in 2018, I find myself thinking of a number which at first seems very little to do with the WaterAid business of water, sanitation and hygiene.

That is Facebook’s announcement this year that they have now reached 2 billion people, or nearly one-quarter of the population of the planet. While this has not been achieved without controversy, it is perhaps the strongest modern-day example of the power that results from capturing public imagination. In just 13 years, it has become an integral part of the daily life of 2 billion people.

We in development have a challenge ahead of us which will require that kind of innovative thinking: reaching 2.3 billion people with decent household toilets in the next 13 years. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have pledged, among other things, to deliver access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene for everyone, everywhere by 2030.

As new statistics released this year show, progress has been far too slow. Not only are there are more people without access to decent toilets (2.3 billion) than use Facebook (2 billion), there are now almost as many people on Instagram (700 million regular users) as those without clean water within a 30-minute round trip (844 million).

A critical moment

Addressing these incredible challenges requires perseverance and innovation, but it will also require a step-change in political will and financing. And as we look ahead to 2018, we at WaterAid are working toward one critical moment which may change the course on how the world has approached access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

In July, a high-level political forum in New York will conduct a major review of progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goal on water and sanitation. So far 35 nations - including developed nations like Canada, Australia and Ireland, as well as developing nations like Senegal, Mali and Niger – have pledged to present their progress, a snapshot which will show us how progress is possible and how far we still have to go.

At WaterAid, we’ve seen many bright examples this year which demonstrate what is possible: for instance, a worldwide effort to address cholera in places where it recurs, year after year, with water, sanitation and hygiene playing a key role, and increasing recognition that water, sanitation and hygiene are critical elements in effective health care, in delivering good education and in tackling malnutrition, as well as in allowing communities to thrive and become more prosperous.

Finding lasting solutions

In Mali earlier this year I met an incredible women’s group empowered by the arrival of clean water and good sanitation. Their new soap-making business is creating new economic opportunity while enabling better hygiene in local schools, leading to healthier, happier students.

In Nepal, we’ve managed to bring hygiene education to parents in remote mountain villages by training community health workers to teach parents while giving regular immunisations; the results of our innovative pilot programme have shown sustained changes in how parents care for their children, including regular handwashing with soap and better food hygiene, which will lead to healthier families.

In Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, our innovative water ATMs run in conjunction with the city water utility have brought affordable, clean water to slum neighbourhoods which previously relied on private water vendors or dirty local wells, and are helping to curtail the regular outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other diseases.

And in Malawi, with the help of UK Aid, we’ve brought access to water, decent toilets and better hygiene to medical clinics, helping dedicated health professionals take better care of their patients, and giving new mothers and their newborns a better chance at a long, healthy life.

New year, fresh start 

Delivering water, sanitation and hygiene to everyone everywhere is possible, but requires a disruption in thinking in how we approach the world of water, sanitation and hygiene. Governments, the private sector and civil society need to work together on lasting solutions to reach everyone.

We know what the needs are. To meet them, we need to tap into the natural aspirations of everyone everywhere for modernity, health and prosperity, and get all our partners on side. In a world where so many challenges seem insurmountable, reaching the 844 million people without access to clean water and 2.3 billion without decent sanitation is something we know how to address. The new year presents us with a fresh shot at real change.