Filling the Glass to the Top: A Call to Action from USAID’s Interim Global Water Coordinator

Angola’s Mbovo villagers are jubilant over their first safe water pump, which saves them hours walking to disease-laden rivers. Photo by: Clint Still, JAM International, Benguela Province, Angola, 2018.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the world needs some good news. The past year has been one of unprecedented adversity with ongoing threats to human health and the global economy. For the global water security, sanitation, and hygiene sector, there have been opportunities and challenges. Countries worldwide declared water an essential service, emphasizing what the sector already knows – that water and the services it enables, such as handwashing, are foundational to health, well-being, and functioning societies. These declarations also tested the sector like never before, building new momentum around handwashing while demanding governments step in to protect hard-won gains in increasing access to safe drinking water. 

However, the early economic impacts of COVID-19 created alarming threats to water service providers in many countries. USAID surveys suggest that many millions of people likely lost access to safe water, even if only temporarily. There are signs some water utilities may have been more resilient than we originally anticipated. This means the sector’s collective shift to supporting stronger water and sanitation governance, finance, and infrastructure is making a difference. But these essential basic systems never should have been vulnerable in the first place. They still aren’t strong enough to be resilient and withstand a pandemic that continues to have major economic impacts. 

Against this background, Maura Barry, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and interim Global Water Coordinator, recently reflected on the state of the sector, both opportunities and challenges, at an event hosted by the Wilson Center on May 11, 2021, entitled “50 Years and Billions Spent: New Reporting Shows Universal Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Draws Closer to Epic Goal Despite Global Pandemic.”

Highlights from her remarks:

  • The best data available suggest that we are well off track for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), even if we continue making progress at the rate we have. 
  • Settling for basic WASH access is not good enough. Billions of people around the world deserve access to safe water with convenient, hygienic sanitation services.
  • By closing the gap from basic access to safe universal access, we can attain the greatest returns for human health, job creation and economic growth, women’s empowerment, and tackle the climate crisis.
  • Getting to this goal will require doubling down on a systems approach to water security, sanitation, and hygiene. This is the approach at the heart of USAID’s Water for the World programs and contributions to the Agency’s Water and Development Plan under the U.S. Government's Global Water Strategy. In a strong system: 
    • Governments and service providers are accountable at the local, national, and global levels. 
    • Each organization aims to deliver services at scale in collaboration with others, such as at a county- or city-wide level, instead of one-off community projects.
    • Water and sanitation services are professionally managed to maintain infrastructure, recover costs, and invest in future expansions. 
    • Water and sanitation service providers can attract new sources of sustainable financing, both public and private, to expand revenues beyond the current reliance on donor aid and household fees.
  • The WASH sector is poised to step up and contribute to economic recovery and ‘building back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic, and preparing for the next global health emergency whenever and wherever that may emerge.

Her remarks appear in full below. 

By USAID Water Team


Prepared remarks for Maura Barry Boyle, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and interim USAID Global Water Coordinator for “50 Years and Billions Spent: New Reporting Shows Universal Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Draws Closer to Epic Goal Despite Global Pandemic

May 11, 2021

 

Good morning, I am Maura Barry, USAID’s Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and interim Global Water Coordinator. 

I’d like to thank our hosts, former USAID Administrator and Ambassador, Mark Green and Lauren Risi of the Wilson Center, the reporters at Circle of Blue, and the Hilton Foundation for bringing us together today.

This series on the state of global drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene, or WASH comes at a time of historical trends in a world altered by a global pandemic that stressed water services further than ever before, and a climate crisis that resulted in the hottest year on record. I commend the team at Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center for taking on a series of this immense size. 

And, I also want to thank the organizations working on the ground for providing candid insights into the state of global water and sanitation. Many of these local service providers, social enterprises, and donors are key USAID partners. Your perseverance and innovation, especially in the past year, are an inspiration.   

If the conclusion of this article series was that the state of the global WASH sector is a glass of water ‘half-full’, I’d like to celebrate how far we’ve come, while also taking a moment to focus on the work we have ahead of us to fill the glass to the brim.  

In 2016, the global community set an ambitious but necessary bar for Sustainable Development Goal Six —water, sanitation, and hygiene access for all. 

In the past 20 years, we’ve made incremental progress for billions of people around the world with at least basic access to a communal drinking water point that is available year-round and within a reasonable distance from their homes, such as a handpump or kiosk. And, to a lesser extent, some improvements have been made on basic sanitation access, defined as a decent latrine or toilet that they don’t have to share. 

The latest global monitoring data from the United Nations tells us that universal access to safe and equitable drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene is perhaps within sight, but far from being reached. 

  • With regards to drinking water—at the current rate of change, the UN estimates that 60 percent of countries and territories will miss the target of universal access to water in 2030, even for the most basic level of drinking water services. Many are in sub-saharan Africa, but many are not: places like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Malaysia, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Pakistan will be home to millions of people without even basic water access. 
     
  • Next, sanitation. We face an even more difficult path to achieving universal access to sanitation. Current estimates tell us that even by 2040, 10 years after the SDGs deadline, we’ll still have more than 100 countries that haven’t yet reached universal access to basic sanitation. And, as many as 750 million people likely still won’t have access to a decent toilet — one that they do not have to share with others outside of their household and is durable.  
     
  • And when it comes to hygiene, prior to the global COVID pandemic, some 3 billion lacked a place to wash their hands. All over the world, handwashing started to become top of mind during the pandemic, but recent evidence suggests that heightened awareness is tapering off, leaving us with a still-daunting challenge ahead.

The best data available suggests that we are well off track for meeting the SDGs, even if we continue making progress at the rate we have. And this comes at a time of mounting challenges.

  • The COVID pandemic has increased costs and reduced revenue for service providers, showing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in WASH systems.
     
  • The ongoing climate crisis will only increase challenges the global community will face. We know that 90% of disasters arising from climate change are related to water—that is, droughts, floods, and water contamination. 

All of these factors may make it tempting for us to water-down our goals. But, settling for basic WASH access is not good enough for the billions of people around the world who lack water free from contamination that is with-in reach, and hygienic sanitation services that safeguard human health, advance dignity, and protect the environment.

We need to build on the incremental progress we’ve made on basic water and sanitation, and bend the curve way up toward a higher level of safe and equitable access for all, and ensure that water resources are sustainable. 

The good news is that if we can close the gap from basic access to safe universal access, we can attain the greatest returns for human health, job creation and economic growth, women’s empowerment, and tackling the climate crisis.

For example, a recent study by Stanford University in rural Zambia found the greatest benefits of water access on women’s empowerment and productivity came from a piped service that reaches their homes. The study stated that, ‘switching from the village borehole to piped supply saved almost 200 hours of fetching time per year for a typical household’ — a task that disproportionately falls upon women and girls. This improved productivity is one of many examples of why piped water and safely managed WASH services must continue to be our goal.

Getting to this goal will require doubling down on a systems approach to WASH. As documented in the Circle of Blue series, a new blueprint for universal access has started to emerge among governments, donors, civil society, and service providers alike. This is also the approach that is at the heart of USAID’s Water for the World programs and contributions to the U.S. Government's Global Water Strategy. 

...And that is a holistic systems approach to WASH that combines investments in infrastructure with improved service delivery and accountable governance. The system puts serving the needs of the people we ultimately aim to help at the heart of its efforts.

This general approach reduces risk and increases the rewards from universal WASH access, and potentially attracts greater attention by governments and investors alike. I’m happy to see that the Circle of Blue Series spotlights promising, innovative approaches from organizations like Sanergy, Fundi-Fix, Uptime, and IRC. Many of the groups have been or are USAID partners, especially in their early stages of growth. And, the World Bank has been a steadfast partner as well.

That said, it’s also important to remember that systems can look different country to country or across urban to rural settings. But, the standout examples in the Circle of Blue series share some common features of high-performing WASH systems that includes working within a strong sector governance framework with clear goals, incentives, and coordination among key actors. 

Some best practices that I’ve observed work generally across all contexts are that: 

  • There are processes in place that hold governments and service providers accountable at the local, national, and global levels. 
     
  • Each organization aims to deliver services at scale, such as at a county- or city-level, instead of one-off projects that don’t collaborate well with others.
     
  • And their approaches should professionally manage the use of water and sanitation services that maintains infrastructure, recovers costs, and invests in the future. 
     
  • And in the end, they attract new sources of sustainable financing, both public and private, that expands revenues beyond the current reliance on donor aid and household fees.

While these pioneers, profiled in the series and here on the event panel, have made significant contributions in advancing the art of the possible, significantly more work is needed to bring these types of approaches to scale and be truly transformative. Investment, innovation, and continued commitment to tackling the thorniest challenges in WASH service delivery will be needed. 

We’ve learned so much in the past 40 plus years since the first ‘decade of water’ was declared in the early 1980’s. That earlier era mostly focused on small-scale infrastructure, such as pit latrines for sanitation and ‘tippy-taps’ for handwashing. Since then, we’ve grown wiser and humbler with age. Today the WASH sector looks to take systems approaches, focusing on collective action with local service providers and governments. The sector today is more data and evidence driven than ever before, and understands universal access is more than just toilets, taps, and handpumps. 

The WASH sector is poised to step up and contribute to economic recovery and ‘building back better’ from the COVID pandemic, and preparing for the next global health emergency when and wherever that may emerge from. 

Going forward, WASH systems approaches also need to take into account growing competition for water resources among different stakeholders and across borders, and mainstream climate adaptation and mitigation into service delivery efforts. A first step is to include and elevate water resources and WASH in national climate plans and commitments. 

I thank Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center for bringing us all together and celebrating bright spots in what has been a challenging past year plus to be sure. I encourage us all to keep the scale of the progress that remains yet to be made in mind, and the other half of the glass that still needs to be filled in our line of sight. I wish you all a fantastic panel, and look forward to continued partnership to redouble our efforts to accelerate water security for all.