Last year we watched with cautious optimism as UN chief Ban Ki-moon welcomed the new Sustainable Development Goals, and called upon the world to meet them.
Cautious, because we’d been here before. In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals were set – to try to lift people out of poverty, improve their health, protect the environment, and so on. They focused the attention of the world on clear, achievable targets.
In the area of water, sanitation and hygiene, however, the MDGs did not try to reach everyone. They aimed to halve the proportion of the global population that didn’t have adequate drinking water, and halve the proportion of the population that didn’t have or use toilets.
The water goal was met but left 663 million people without improved drinking water in 2015. The sanitation goal was missed and 2.4 billion people still have no access.
The SDGs set a high bar of universal and equitable access to safe water, and adequate sanitation and hygiene. That is the challenge facing representatives of some 50 countries, the UN, and numerous civil society partners gathered in Addis Ababa this week for the Sanitation and Water for All Ministerial Meeting.
The SDGs force us to move beyond looking at infrastructure, to addressing accessibility, availability and quality of services that were not envisaged under the MDGs. They call for “safely managed” water, sanitation and hygiene services.
They call for extending WASH services, not only to households, but to schools, workplaces, and other institutions. They call for an end to dumping and water pollution; an end to open defecation; addressing water scarcity. This means we have to radically change our way of working.
For UNICEF, this is a crucial challenge, because water, sanitation and hygiene underpin so much of the rest of the goals. Those related to nutrition, health, education, poverty and economic growth, urban services, gender equality, resilience and climate change cannot be met without progress on water, sanitation and hygiene.
It is so evident when it comes to children. Some 800 children under 5 years old die every day from diarrhoeal diseases linked to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Around the world 159 million children are stunted, a condition linked to open defecation.
What we have to do is:
1. Focus on those furthest behind. Progress during the MDG era almost as a rule left behind the poorest and most marginalized. Generally, the wealthier groups of the population are served long before the poorest. Those not reached include the rural poor; those who live in urban slums; ethnic minorities; the disabled; and many women and children. We must deliberately target those who have so far been excluded.
2. Ensure good governance and accountability. Good policies, strong institutions, robust financing, competent monitoring systems and comprehensive capacity development are among the fundamental “building blocks” that are needed to deliver results. In Addis, we will agree how to put these building blocks in place and mainstream them within country plans.
3. Address the impact of climate change: Nearly 160 million children live in severely drought-prone areas, mostly in Africa and Asia, where safe drinking water and sanitation are already in short supply. Droughts affect nutrition, but also education, since children and women are the main carriers of water when it is scarce, eating up hours needed for school and other activities. Nearly half a billion children live in flood zones, the vast majority of them in Asia. Apart from the drowning risks to children, floods compromise water supplies and damage sanitation facilities, increasing the risk of diarrhoea outbreaks. Other water-borne diseases which are predicted to increase with higher temperatures include malaria, dengue, zika, and cholera. We must prepare for the consequences of climate change, especially for those already most vulnerable.
4. Use innovation, testing and data. In 2016, we know better and cheaper ways of testing water than we did in 2000, and can ensure that those ‘improved sources’ are also safe sources. We have ways of collecting and disseminating data which can help governments pinpoint the populations left behind. And we can use new technology to bring better and cheaper toilets, and better and safer water to the millions who don’t have them now.
Addis must be our springboard to action, because millions of people should not have to wait for years to have safe water, proper toilets and better hygiene.