No one should be too poor to drink clean water

Lousie Medland Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

For World Water Week Louise Medland reflects on the stark global inequalities in access to water and sanitation, and outlines some of the Oxfam programmes which are improving services for the poorest.  

Equal access to sufficient safe and affordable water, and adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene, can mean the difference between prosperity and poverty, well-being and ill-health, and even living and dying’

United Nations (2018). Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation

It’s the time of year again when professionals working on water and sanitation around the world convene in Stockholm for World Water Week. The theme this year is ‘water, ecosystems and human development’, which recognises that water is critical for human development, but at the same time we have to remember that the water resources we use and the ecosystems we’re all part of are vulnerable to many challenges like climate change, increasing pollution and over-exploitation.

Inequalities in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are at an all-time high and affect almost every country. The richest in society have the best access to services and can in some cases actively prevent the poorest from achieving even basic levels of access. Having access to safe and affordable water and sanitation has been recognised as a human right but we’re still in the situation where less than 1% of GDP globally (Gross Domestic Product) is spent on water and sanitation services.

Leaders at the World Economic Forum have identified water crises as the top risk of global concern over the next 10 years and it’s not just about having too little water available, it’s also about having too much, like we’ve seen recently with flash floods in Spain, France, Canada, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Only 62 per cent of people in the least developed countries have access to a basic drinking water service compared to 89 per cent of the global population. The situation for sanitation is even worse, only 32 per cent of those in the least developed countries have access to safe sanitation facilities. Fragile countries are further behind than more politically stable countries, and rural communities lag behind urban ones. Ethnicity is also a critical factor over whether you have access to WASH services or not. Indigenous and tribal people comprise more than 15 per cent of the world’s poor, but account for less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, which means in many places they are being unfairly marginalised and denied access to even basic services. 

Only 62 per cent of people in the least developed countries have access to a basic drinking water service compared to 89 per cent of the global population.

So, what are we doing about it? Sustainability, affordability and equity of services are at the heart of all our approaches. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) we’re working on providing sustainable access to water and sanitation in some of the most difficult to reach areas. DRC has abundant water resources, but decades of conflict have led to infrastructure being destroyed and a chronic lack of investment, leaving many people without access to clean water. Oxfam is working with partners on new, more professional, ways of maintaining the infrastructure installed. We’re supporting water network users’ associations which manage water supply systems in semi-urban areas. The management teams are comprised of local people who receive a salary and the associations also employ local craftsmen for operation and maintenance of the water system.

In Kenya, through the SWIFT programme, we’ve worked with local private water utility companies to improve their services to their customers and increase their financial transparency. As a result, they were able to keep delivering safe and affordable water even during one of the most severe droughts Kenya has ever experienced. This makes a life-changing difference to people like Regina Aemun from Nakwamekwi, and the other nine members of her household, she told Oxfam:

‘We were getting water once in a while from a local water point, it wasn’t once a day – more like once a week. So we often had to go to the river to collect water. Now, we don’t have to go far’

In Myanmar, Oxfam is working with government municipalities and Ernst & Young Enterprise Growth Services to develop a tiered pricing model for faecal sludge collection and management. We’ve demonstrated that the municipalities can increase revenue collection and expand their services to the poorest using the tiered pricing model. The growth in revenue can fund improvements in health and safety.

In the year between now and the next World Water Week our key priorities are to keep developing new partnerships and pushing our work on sustainable services forwards, even in the most challenging contexts. We firmly believe that no one should be too poor to drink clean water or use a safe toilet.


Isabelle Kermeen