WESTBURY, New York — This past July, WaterAid celebrated 40 years of advocacy and success in providing clean water access to the world’s most vulnerable people in 28 nations. The Borgen Project spoke to Kathryn Tobin, WaterAid America’s global campaigns manager, to learn more about WaterAid’s projects during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
WaterAid is a non-governmental organization that focuses on providing clean and sustainable water and sanitation systems to the developing world. Established in London in 1981, members of the United Kingdom’s water industry founded WaterAid. Championing sustainability and poverty reduction, WaterAid works with local communities in 28 nations to provide sustainable water services and hygiene systems.
Providing clean water access to developing nations impacts the world economy and people’s well-being. Access to clean water prevents fungal and bacterial infections, eliminates dysentery and better facilitates recovery from disease. Access to clean water can safeguard more than two billion people, the number of people who still lack access to safely managed water, from the risk of death.
In 2021, WaterAid contracted Mckinsey’s Vivid Economics for its latest piece of research, Mission-Critical, to calculate and quantify the impact of WaterAid’s services around the world. Tobin says this project bolsters WaterAid’s advocacy efforts because it presents an economic case for investment in water and sanitation and outlines the benefits for development and poverty reduction.
“For example, if everyone in the world had access to sanitation, that would add $86 billion in revenue to the global economy every year in greater productivity and reduced health costs,” Tobin says. “The provision of even basic water services (from an improved water source, collected within a 30 minute roundtrip) would add $32 billion,” says Tobin. She explains further that these statistics are imperative “in getting donors and local governments to see the impact of our work and of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) more broadly.”
Tobin explains that these numbers are imperative because they show that donors’ contributions can tangibly affect the livelihoods and long-term sustainability in a given area. Future research and advocacy will build on Mission-Critical as WaterAid seeks to continue to define in numeric terms the impact of WASH services on a nation’s GDP, for example.
WaterAid also engages in direct advocacy with governmental institutions around the world, at the local and national levels. Tobin says the organization fosters relationships with governments to synchronize WaterAid’s goals with the national priorities of the country it operates in, providing expertise and services in tandem with local communities.
Meeting Sustainable Development Goal 6
In 2015, the world’s governments gathered at the United Nations headquarters to decide on an agenda for sustainable development, following the success of the Millennium Development goals. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to build on the momentum of the Millenium Development Goals. Goal 6, in particular, aims to “Provide universal water access and safe sanitation to every person on Earth by 2030.” The SDG inspired a commitment from WaterAid to meet this goal through WASH initiatives. While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the efforts of 2020, WaterAid still plans to meet this goal alongside other organizations.
WaterAid’s Efforts During COVID-19
In 2020 alone, more than one in four people did not have access to clean drinking water and close to 50% of the global population “lacked safely managed sanitation.” The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these disparities. During the initial stages of the pandemic, about 30% of the world’s population did not have access to soap and water to wash their hands.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed how WaterAid approaches building clean, sustainable, environmentally-friendly water infrastructure in developing nations. Tobin says WaterAid is a development organization, not a humanitarian response organization. However, in response to the pandemic though, the organization learned to respond quickly to emergent threats in developing nations while pursuing its long-term goals.
“The focus on sustainability means sometimes it’s hard to mobilize quickly,” says Tobin. “But we really responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when our support was requested from governments.” In 2020, WaterAid Rwanda partnered with the Rwandan government to build handwashing stations at border points despite the organization not typically working on the border.
Tobin says WaterAid was able to build cost-effective handwashing stations to stop the spread of COVID-19. Tobin explains that working closely with governments at the national and municipal levels allows the organization to pinpoint where its services are needed most, for example, in poorly connected, rural areas.
WaterAid Champions a Global Effort
Taking a comprehensive approach, WaterAid works with local water and sanitation engineers and local municipalities. WaterAid also has country-specific policy teams to determine WASH trends in an area and ascertain how to finance WASH projects using existing local infrastructure, economic policies and government funding. WaterAid also uses advanced technology within its infrastructure development to better provide cleaner and more affordable solutions to safe water management.
One piece of recent technology, called the SatoPan by Lixil, a water-saving sustainable toilet, can better facilitate access to sanitation. WaterAid also incorporates innovative ways to solve other problems related to water solutions like safe latrines for women and trans-inclusive sanitation. For example, WaterAid’s work on female-friendly community toilets includes a guide for municipal authorities to ensure that public latrines feature good lighting, locks on doors and disposal for hygienic products, features that contribute to a feeling of security and privacy for the latrine user.
A Focus on Sustainability
WaterAid’s approach to sustainable development starts with speaking to local contractors and utilities to construct the infrastructure. WaterAid designs this infrastructure to be environmentally sustainable, easily maintainable and reliable. Whether WaterAid is constructing sanitation systems like fecal sludge management, double use latrines or piped water systems, Tobin says the goal of building infrastructure like this is for the local government to be able to duplicate WaterAid’s work in the future.
WaterAid prioritizes the sustainability of services. “Very often an organization will build a borehole and the village has clean water, and that’s great,” says Tobin. “But, if two years later, a part breaks and they can’t buy that part or install it, then the project was a waste of money at worst or a temporary fix at best.”
Tobin explains that WaterAid’s approach of system strengthening looks for the elements that are necessary for their projects to work long term. She says that local training, community empowerment and capacity development on WASH committees help further the goal of providing sustainable, long-term solutions to water access problems.
Looking to the Future
While reaching the goal of providing WASH services to every human by 2030 is a difficult task to achieve alone, Tobin hopes WaterAid’s work will catalyze other organizations and institutions to take up the cause of providing clean water and sanitation. Tobin says providing WASH initiatives is relatively inexpensive in comparison to other sectors in government budgets. Although providing WASH services is location-specific, the methods and technology to provide these services are well established and easy to implement.
Tobin ends off on a hopeful note, explaining that while the major goal of providing WASH services to all still requires much work, WaterAid’s commitment to SDG 6 will not wither. “We’re working to put ourselves out of business,” says Tobin. Like all international development organizations, WaterAid hopes to help create a world where its services are no longer necessary — a world where everyone’s fundamental needs are met.
– Andre Silva
Photo: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala