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Matta, 9, collects clean water with Jenneh Bobor, 32, at the pump in Tombohun, Sierra Leone, May 2017. Credit: WaterAid/Joey Lawrence.

Without access to WASH, the UK jeopardises the SDGs

25 June 2019
Author: Bethan Twigg

With great responsibility, comes accountability. Four years ago, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help transform the lives and protect the planet by 2030. But progress is too slow and off-track.

At current rates of progress, everyone in the least developed countries won’t have safely managed water until 2131 – over 100 years behind schedule.

With a decade to go, governments must act with renewed vigour. How? By making targeted interventions in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Without universal access to WASH, Agenda 2030 and its ambitious 17 interlinked goals will not be achieved. Bond’s new report on the UK’s global progress on the SDGs highlights the gaps where investment is most needed to inclusively achieve the goals.

Access to WASH is a global issue

Lacking access to basic WASH facilities stops people having an equal chance to be healthy, educated and financially secure. This violation holds back lives, nations and the entire development agenda.

Peaceful, equal and stable societies are formed when people have access to health and education. You can’t study when you are tired from walking hours every day collecting water, or when you haven’t got the facilities to safely manage your period.

Yet new data published last week highlights that many countries are centuries away from achieving universal access. The top three countries with the least access to WASH are African nations:

  • 61% of Chad’s population has no access to a basic water service
  • In Ethiopia, 93% have no basic sanitation
  • In Liberia, 99%  has no access to basic hygiene facilities

We need transformative change if we are to reach those who are most left behind. This will only take place if there is a political step-change on WASH.

Every year world leaders take turns to report their progress at the UN, and this July, the UK government is under the spotlight.

The UK’s Voluntary National Review will report on both its domestic and global progress against the SDGs, including WASH (Goal 6). You can read an analysis of the UK’s domestic progress in UKSSD’s report.

UK’s global record on WASH

Globally, the UK’s support for WASH is positive and it has reached 80million people since 2011. The Department for International Development (DFID) is also taking welcome steps towards ensuring their WASH programming is sustainable and has committed to strengthening national WASH systems.

The problem is one of scale and ambition. The UK invests just 2% of bilateral aid in WASH. This is worryingly below what’s needed for real progress.

But it’s about more than money. There isn’t a fully integrated approach across the UK budget and departments. A 2019 National Audit Office report states the responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of aid spending is “fragmented across government” and that it is unclear which department has overall oversight over the aid strategy.

Address the financing gap on WASH

Financing alone is not a golden bullet that will solve the WASH crisis, but it is a strong indicator of the government's priorities.

The World Bank says there is a financing gap of US$ 114 billion per annum on WASH. Imagine the possibilities if the UK’s 2% WASH investment was brought into line with spending in other core sectors, such as 15% of official development assistance (ODA) invested on health, and 9% on education?

DFID must address this financing gap immediately.

Integrating goals

Different parts of DFID, including WASH, gender, health and education, don’t always work well together.

The UK needs to find solutions for this lack of coordination, such as ring-fenced funding to help promote integrated working.

The government also needs to improve its own assessments of targets and indicators. After all, why have goals if you can’t measure your success or know where to improve?

A political step change

The former UN Secretary-General said, “Water is life”, his successor said, “if we remain off track to deliver on SDG 6, we jeopardize the entire 2030 Agenda.”

This is an opportunity for a dramatic and far-reaching political step change.

Will the UK government step up? We will be watching.

Read Bond's report on The UK’s global contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals: Progress, gaps and recommendations.

Join the Bond UK WASH Network to exchange knowledge, enhance analysis and coordinate advocacy on water, sanitation and hygiene issues. You can also join the Bond SDGs Group to help drive forward Agenda 2030.

About the author

Bethan Twigg

Bethan is the advocacy coordinator (UK government lead) at WaterAid and co-chair of the Bond UK WASH Network.