2023 Water Conference,
Interactive Dialogue 1 (AM)

Water, Sanitation, Hygiene ‘a Human Right’, Crucial for Health, Prosperity Worldwide, Speakers Stress at Conference’s First Interactive Dialogue

Investing inclusively in water, sanitation and hygiene is crucial for health, prosperity and equity, speakers from Governments and civil society underscored as the 2023 Water Conference kicked off a series of five interactive dialogues.

Co-Chair Miguel Ceara Hatton, Minister for Environment and Natural Resources of the Dominican Republic, opening the first dialogue on “Water for Health:  Access to WASH [water, sanitation, hygiene], including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation”, pointed to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine.  There are also longer-term issues in developing countries, including population increases and inefficient patterns of consumption.  Spotlighting models of growth which have led to deep social inequity, he said that, while water is life and access to water, sanitation and hygiene are human rights, United Nations statistics show that more than 40 per cent of the world's population is affected by a lack of water.  More so, approximately 1.8 billion persons throughout the world use a source of drinking water contaminated with faecal waste, he reported, adding that diseases related to water and sanitation continue to be among the main causes of death for children under five years of age.

Co-chair, Zac Goldsmith, Minister for State, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom, stressed that, if the international community does not pay attention to water security, it will always be vulnerable to the next pandemic.  Without increasing health facilities' access to water, sanitation and hygiene, it is not possible to reduce the use of antibiotics to treat avoidable infections.  Further, because climate change is increasing water insecurity, donors, civil society and the private sector must throw their weight behind Government leadership.  Noting that his country has been working with the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) “to raise the political profile of WASH”, he said it is essential to support Government services that are sustainable, climate-resilient, nature-positive and inclusive.  Announcing a new initiative, “WASH Systems for Health”, which has a budget of £18.5 million, he said the United Kingdom will work with Governments in five developing countries to reinforce water, sanitation and hygiene institutions.

A panel discussion was then held, moderated by Catherine Russell, Executive Director, United Nations Children's Fund, and featuring Abida Sidik Mia, Minister for Water and Sanitation of Malawi; Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Vikas Sheel, Assistant Vice-Minister, Ministry of Jal Shakti (Water Resources) of India; and Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Ms. Mia, recalling WHO estimates that 829,000 people worldwide die every year from diarrhoea as a result of consuming unsafe water, said that, in her country, that disease accounts for 7 per cent of all under-five-years-old deaths.  Malawi recently registered an alarming increase in cholera cases nationwide, with over 1,500 lives lost since the outbreak in March 2022.  Just as the country took positive strides in containing that disease, it was struck by tropical cyclone Freddy, which caused floods and led to the loss of over 1,000 lives and the extensive displacement of people.  These vulnerable populations are now susceptible to diseases as they have very limited access to clean water and sanitation services.  While 6 million Malawians did not have access to clean water before the cyclone, this number has significantly increased since then.  This means more people are going to be at a greater risk of suffering waterborne diseases, she said, noting her country’s highly constrained budget.  “The needs are far more than we are able to meet,” she said, appealing for more support towards reconstruction and installation of water and sanitation facilities.

Mr. Grandi stated that he was speaking on behalf of 103 million refugees and displaced people around the world, as well as their host communities, who are particularly impacted by the lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene.  Water and displacement have a very complex interrelation, he said, noting that droughts and floods can displace people.  Even more gravely, the destruction of water infrastructure due to war and conflict also exacerbates displacement.  Thus, displaced people often face a further lack of access to water and sanitation, he noted, adding that, beyond the humanitarian consequences, there are also multiple health issues to consider.  “Don’t try to set up systems in parallel for displaced populations,” he advised donors, pointing out that it is more useful to reinforce exiting water and sanitation systems that Governments have put in place.  It is crucial to include affected populations in those systems, he stressed, also reporting that investing in water infrastructure is vital for ensuring the return of displaced people, as well.

Mr. Sheel, recalling the 2014 launch of the Clean India/Swachh Bharat programme, said that, within a short span of five years, the country was able to construct an additional 110 million toilets.  In 2019, India declared itself “open-defecation-free”, he said, highlighting the success of this behaviour-change initiative.  Bolstered by this progress, the Government is now focusing on a mission to provide functional household tap connections to each of the 192 million rural households in the country.  It has covered around 82 million households since then, he said, voicing confidence that in the next two years, the country is likely to cross 95 per cent coverage by providing tap connections to an additional 70 million households.  This commitment to work at speed and at scale is driven directly from the top with political commitment at the highest level.  At the same time, there is also participation at all levels of the local bodies.

Mr. Chapagain, stressing the importance of building resilience, especially in the face of multiplying threats to global health, said that strengthening water sanitation and hygiene programmes and health-emergency preparedness at the community level is one of the most effective ways to do this.  Community participation is key, he said, adding that how well communities cope during a health crisis is linked to how well prepared they are at that level.  He highlighted his organization’s initiative to harness the collective capacity of its international network to establish large-scale integrated public health and water, sanitation and hygiene projects.  The goal is to prevent poverty, disease and malnutrition while helping communities adapt to health-related shocks.  Further, his organization ensures that its water, sanitation and hygiene programming is targeted, inclusive and gender-sensitive to ensure that no one is left behind, he said.

The interactive dialogue also included five lead discussants:  Boluwatito Awe, President of the Nigerian Youth Parliament for Water; Maria Neira, Assistant Director General, World Health Organization; Andrea Carmen, Executive Director, International Indian Treaty Council; Eva Muhia, Deputy President, Pan-African Association of Sanitation Actors; and Laura Chinchilla, former President of Costa Rica, and member of the Global Leaders’ Council at Sanitation and Water for All.

Ms. Awe, observing that she was “the youngest person here”, underscored that she should not be the only youth at a high-level discussion on water.  If the international community wants to step up progress, then it needs “an army of young people”, she said, stressing that youth are a force to reckon with.  Sharing her experience of working in rural communities in Nigeria, trying to implement behaviour changes relating to water and sanitation, she said the people out there doing the footwork in communities are not at the United Nations when decisions are being made that would affect them.  “I've heard you talk about your commitments and none of it involves youth action,” she pointed out, adding that the last time this meeting was held, she wasn't even born.  The international community is still having the same conversations and nothing has changed.  Therefore, innovation is crucial.  Also underlining the importance of education, she emphasized that it cost an arm and leg to access the necessary education need in the field.

Ms. Neira, spotlighting the many terrible and dramatic figures cited today, said they are a stark reminder of how many children die every year because of diseases related to lack of water and sanitation.  A health-care facility without access to water and sanitation is unacceptable.  “If you have a health-care facility without water and sanitation and hygiene, please don't call it a health-care facility,” she said, adding that climate change is only exacerbating the difficult situation facing the most vulnerable countries.  She also emphasized the importance of including youth — “the new generation that will be suffering without being responsible”.  Citing the famous mantra of “leave no one behind”, she added:  “I am afraid we are leaving many millions behind already.”  Noting that there were high levels of ambition in the room, she said the international community must accelerate the speed of its commitments and implementation.  “If you want health, you better invest in water,” she stated.

Ms. Carmen, observing that much of the language around water speaks of it as a target or a dealmaker or a resource to be managed, reminded everyone:  “We are all mainly made of water.  Water was our first home in our mother’s wombs.”  Sharing her community’s creation story, in which life forms came out of the water, she added that for Indigenous Peoples, water is not only the sacred source of life, but also a living being with its own spirit and power.  Citing article 25 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms that “Indigenous Peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard”, she called on States to implement this.  Real solutions require full and effective participation of diverse stakeholders, she said, highlighting the absence of Indigenous Peoples from decision-making related to water.

Ms. Muhia, underscoring that the question of how to engage with the private sector is crucial, cited as an example the toilets that will be used by people in the audience after this discussion.  Asking them to reflect on who is managing the toilet, she noted that, at the end of that cycle, there is a manual emptier somewhere.  Water commitments need to translate at that level, she said, adding that it is essential to bring the private sector together to have these discussions.  The private sector is boring wells, building toilets and connecting waterways.  Stressing the importance of a framework for private sector engagement, she said it is vital to localize the language.  Mutual accountability, mutual commitment and mutual respect are crucial, she added.

Ms. Chinchilla said that it is clear that delivering on access to water and sanitation has the transformative potential to uplift everyone, from girls enrolled in schools to climate-resilient communities.  Welcoming the commitments made, she called on the international community to eliminate inequalities in accessing water and ensure agency for the most vulnerable, including women and girls.  Advocating for an “AAA rating” of “ambition, action and accountability” on water and sanitation, she said that the international community must focus on multi-stakeholder engagement.  It must listen to the health community, the Indigenous community and youth, she said, stressing that without mutual accountability, all these goals will be stymied.

When the floor opened, speakers highlighted water-related challenges facing their countries and echoed the warnings about the adverse sociopolitical impact of lack of access to that resource.

The representative of Senegal noted that one out of four health-care facilities does not have basic water and sanitation facilities.  Calling for coordination at the institutional level, he said that health-care access is part of the Emerging Senegal plan.  Also calling attention to the problem of water pollution, he said it should be considered in regulations concerning water and health.

The representative of the Solomon Islands said that his country, though surrounded by an abundance of water, continues to face lack of access to water for drinking and sanitation; women and children spend huge amounts of time collecting water.  Noting that his Government lacks resources to maintain water systems, he said that is also essential to train communities to maintain water resources.

The speaker from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) underlined the importance of avoiding harmful stereotypes, such as migrants being responsible for disease or depleting natural resources such as water.  “We must recognize migrants and mobile populations as development actors,” she said.

The speaker from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) spotlighted the linkages between water and sexual and reproductive health.  He added that access to clean water is crucial for tackling menstrual stigma.

Colombia’s delegate said that 3.2 million people in her country have no access to drinking water.  Also sharing statistics relating to malnutrition, she said that large-scale investment and better technological capacity are crucial for addressing this situation.

Water is a constitutional right in Zimbabwe, that country’s representative said, highlighting an ambitious programme for drilling borewells in 35,000 villages across the country.  Zimbabwe is also investing in accelerated mega-dam construction projects, he said.

Thailand’s delegate, noting the importance of wastewater management, said that his country is also introducing eco-efficiency and carbon-footprint monitoring to ensure that the use of water is sustainable.

Lebanon’s delegate reporting on his country’s recovery plan for the water sector, called for international assistance to ensure its success, especially if Lebanon is to host displaced Syrians for a longer period.

“Make peace with rivers,” Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Water and Sanitation said, adding that it is crucial to promote democratic governance of water as a common good accessible to all.  Water is not a business opportunity, but a human rights issue, he stressed.

The representative of the European Union said that ensuring access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities outside the home is a prerequisite for addressing gender equality, including by enhancing the school attendance of girls in particular.  Stressing the need to address the financing gap for water and sanitation, she said that the Union’s contributions will provide more than 70 million individuals access to improved drinking water and sanitation facilities.

In closing remarks, Ms. Russel said Government leadership and public financing is absolutely key to drive progress on water and sanitation.  Mr. Hatton called for a comprehensive approach that works on high, middle and low watersheds, from dams and reservoirs during droughts to water treatment plants.  Mr. Goldsmith highlighted the importance of collaboration and said the international community knows what to do.  It is time to translate its macro-commitments into actions at the local level.

Also speaking were the representatives of Tunisia, Uganda, Mozambique, Poland, Russian Federation, Argentina, Ethiopia, Benin, Namibia, Niger, Barbados, Peru, Italy, Togo, Armenia and Namibia.

The Forum also heard from the representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, as well as civil society and private sector representatives from Congo Handicap and Unilever.

For information media. Not an official record.