By Muyatwa Sitali
A break from the past is needed to Build Forward Better
Going back to the old normal is not the way forward. COVID-19 has taught us that a world where nearly half of its population do not have what they need to properly wash their hands at critical times is not a safe world.
We are delicately and dangerously connected. A disease which started in one city has touched every corner of the world in just a few months. Washing hands at critical times is a crucial defender of our health. If anyone of us is unable to do so because they lack soap, water, or both, then all of us are at risk of life-threatening diseases. Moving forward, when we build the future that we need, we should make sure to invest in the things that matter, however small or inconsequential they may seem.
Last year my car had a slow puncture. I kept pumping in more air in the tyres whenever the pressure got low. It was cheaper to do so at that time, but it eventually cost me more as the costs kept adding up over time. Until I replaced the tyres, the worry of the problem getting worse never left me. Similarly, COVID-19 has not only caused a slow puncture in our lifestyle- it has affected nearly everything so quickly. It has ripped through most of our economies and almost brought global economic activity to a standstill. Our response cannot be temporal, half-baked, or hap-hazard. We will spend more time and resources in one way or the other if we fail to fix the problem right at this time.
The next public health pandemic should find us better prepared and equipped, but we will not be able to achieve that if we keep mopping the floor and keep failing to fix the leaking tap.
Building the future we need requires us to build forward better and to channel resources quickly and effectively, especially for those who are most vulnerable and are likely to be most hit by the ongoing or the next pandemic. In addition to vaccines and curative health, emerging responses for COVID-19 must deal with preventative measures. Especially ensuring that water and soap are always available to all – they are vital to hand washing, which is our first line of defense against COVID-19 and several other diseases.
COVID-19 has found a path of least resistance through communities where handwashing is a luxury, social distancing is nearly impossible and where the choice to buy a mask competes with the choice to buy food or medicines. Also, affected are the communities where water and sanitation services are either missing or are awfully inadequate. The researchers at the University of Oxford, Godfred Amankwa and Christian Fischer looked at the correlation between COVID-19 fatalities and poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. Their findings, even if only drawn from Sub-Sahara Africa, are very telling. They “found a strong correlation between a higher case fatality rate and poorer access to safe drinking water as well as safe sanitation.” The correlation was stronger for poor sanitation, which typically has lagged even far behind the access to water even before COVID-19.
We, therefore, need an urgent break from the past to Build Forward Better.
Investing in sanitation, water and hygiene creates jobs and is good for the economy too
The impact of COVID-19 is driving most leaders to fix economies which have been brought to their breaking points and have in a way made 2020 the lost year of this decade. But fixing economies alone will not take away the root cause and the vulnerabilities which make us extremely susceptible to public health pandemics. Fixing economies alone will be akin to mopping the floor while the leaking tap continues to gush streams of water.
Luckily, investing in life-saving WASH initiatives is a smart choice. It is good for our health and it is good for our economies. It is also good in its own right. Who doesn’t want deserve need water that is safe, a dignified place to call a toilet, and soap with which to clean their hands. After all, water is life, and sanitation is dignity.
Most water and sanitation infrastructure are in critical need of rehabilitation, restoration and maintenance. In several places, new infrastructure is desperately needed to reach communities that lack or have inadequate services. Significant investments to build water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure can create jobs. The construction of water and sanitation systems offers immense opportunities to employ thousands of young women and men. Investments in extending services through expanding distribution lines and increasing connections for urban populations do not just help, but provide social services for increasingly large urban centers; it also offers jobs in urban areas where risks for political unrest can be rife when services continue to be abysmal.
The more people can be connected to water and sanitation systems, the larger the customer base for service providers. Given that most people are willing to pay if they can get a good service, this, in turn, can increase the revenue for service providers and create a path for reduced dependence on government grants and subsidies. Consequently allowing governments to spend the limited resources in more vulnerable low-income communities in slums, and rural areas. The ecosystem of services dependent on an efficiently operating water and sanitation system is robust. Human Resources and institutions needed to maintain services and assure quality, are just as important as those needed to build them. The sector provides a plethora of blue-collar jobs.
In India, the Prime Minister’s flagship program, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) led to an impact of 7.55 million (full time employment) workers through direct and indirect employment effects. The SBM was a program aimed at eliminating open defecation in India.
As put by Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program who analyzed jobs in the water sector, “water utilities employ many workers, but multiple other industries and establishments, including engineering firms and construction contractors, are essential to the water sector too. Collectively, the water workforce fills 212 different occupations—from positions in the skilled trades like electricians and technicians to financial, administrative, and management positions—that are found everywhere, from big metropolitan markets to smaller rural areas”. Even if their focus was on the US, their finding on the network of jobs associated to the water sector can be easy to see in other countries. They add that the water sector is responsible for “hiring a diverse workforce” and “can support greater economic mobility.”
Equally sanitation and hygiene provide commensurate opportunities for jobs and economic activity for households and communities. But these opportunities cannot be fully harnessed without upfront, and often significant investments in building not only the physical infrastructure but also the human and institutional capacity to develop, regulate and maintain these services. Without these investments, life and dignity will remain at risk.
Governments and their partners must invest in water, sanitation and hygiene as if our economies depend on them, because, well, they do!
Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is a matter of prioritization
The critical question during and after COVID-19 is – how can governments support the sector given the impact of COVID-19 on the tax base as many people and industries have been affected? Basically, the cake to be distributed has significantly been reduced. Indeed, the impacts of COVID-19 on most industries has had the effect of curtailing jobs and reducing growth among others. The World Bank estimates that “East Asia and the Pacific will grow by a scant 0.5%. South Asia will contract by 2.7%, Sub-Saharan Africa by 2.8%, Middle East and North Africa by 4.2%, Europe and Central Asia by 4.7%, and Latin America by 7.2%.”
There is no silver bullet to resolving COVID-19 and the myriad small or big crises associated with it, including the aftershocks we are yet to see. For now, a good number of countries should take advantage of the fiscal space they have due to suspension of debt repayments to put their resources where it matters most – programs which protect our health, create jobs and make their economies resilient. The financial burden could have been worse had some governments not received a reprieve on their debt obligations.
The World Bank and the G20 agreed to the debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) for low-income countries. As of 8 September, 43 countries were said to be participating in this initiative with the possibility of more countries joining. Unlike the previous debt initiative which cancelled and reduced the actual debt stock of many countries, this new initiative pushes the debt payment obligations forward. This means these countries will not need to be servicing a considerable amount of their loans for some time, thereby gaining some amount of relief and fiscal space – hoping they don’t use this space to service loans from creditors who are not participating in the current initiative. Many commentators and debt campaigners would have preferred a total debt-write off which the initiative does not provide. For countries benefiting from the DSSI, how governments act to protect their revenues and manage this fiscal space will make the difference.
Colleagues at WaterAid and EndWater Poverty also offer some suggestions for increasing development finance during this time. Among others, they call for a transformation in public finance in order to maximize revenues, curtail pilferage and in turn prioritize the SDGs including the water, sanitation and hygiene targets every year. They recommend action on tax evasion, climate finance and new taxes on carbon emissions as critical to creating additional resources. They also support the UN Secretary-General, UNCTAD and others who have called for a new allocation of IMF’s Special Drawing Rights to bolster developing countries’ foreign exchange reserves, stimulate economies and release funds for spending on health and public services.
Nearly 100 global leaders, including 14 Heads of States and Governments have called for serious attention to hygiene, water and sanitation during and after COVID-19. As part of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, they support mobilization and adequate investment in these three issues as fundamental pillars for a healthy population which is critical for growth. In addition, the World Bank and G20 recommend more spending in social, health and economic sectors. Will governments only invest in economic programs which do not help to insulate their economies from a future public health pandemic? Or will they invest in economic initiatives which simultaneously propel growth, support a healthy society and do not exacerbate the climate crisis? Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene services at scale promises to deliver on those three fronts. It is social spending with multiple benefits.
Opportunities for all stakeholders, led by governments, to find joint solutions and bend the arc of history
As austerity will be the path taken by most governments, there is a high risk that governments will demote investments in the primary factors that can help to cut the pathways of diseases including COVID-19. Taking money away from water, sanitation, and hygiene is akin to taking away firetrucks when the fire is still raging. When a grocery is burning, it is folly to take away money from the fire department in order to restock the grocery. In the face of this pandemic, it is important that governments do not take away money from the very first and primary line of defense- water, sanitation, and hygiene- to other sectors. Already, during COVID-19, some countries cut allocations to the water and sanitation sector. A few have either maintained or increased allocations to hygiene services. But hygiene, water and sanitation are complementary. One is not very effective without the others. Investing only in hygiene is like building a house without a roof or buying toothpaste without a toothbrush. Economies can ill afford deprioritized spending in water, sanitation and hygiene. If there are issues whose resources should be protected, ring-fenced and complemented during this crisis, water, sanitation, hygiene and health must be top of that list.
The Sanitation and Water for All partnership has identified investing in water, sanitation and hygiene as a paramount goal which is critical to achieving several targets at once during the current and future pandemics. The partnership has engaged ministers responsible for water, sanitation and hygiene in extremely important discussions to ensure they have the right information to make the right decisions and invest in these issues during COVID19. But these ministers on their own cannot bend the arc of history towards a more equitable society where there is water, sanitation, and hygiene for everyone, always, and everywhere.
To complement their efforts, the partnership is working with global and regional organizations including the World Bank, UNICEF, Asia, Africa and Inter-American Development Banks, and the African Ministers Council on Water, to organize meetings for ministers of finance and their counterparts in health, water, sanitation and hygiene.
Between November and December 2020, SWA will hold three virtual Regional Finance Ministers’ Meetings for Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. Ministers will discuss very practical solutions to ensure they are making smart investments in a time of constricted budgets and austerity. They will look at real examples where the economic opportunities offered by investing in water, sanitation and hygiene are maximized. Some of the examples will be drawn from a handbook for finance Ministers which was launched at the beginning of September 2020.
The handbook- Water & Sanitation: How to Make Public Investment Work – A Handbook for Finance Ministers – gives practical financing approaches to achieve the water, sanitation and hygiene targets of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It demonstrates how to deliver greater efficiencies in the sector and remove obstacles to securing finance for costs of service delivery, expansion, quality improvement, or asset rehabilitation. Ministers can use the handbook to overcome these inherently political challenges which require both sector minister and finance ministers to work together.
The SWA Secretariat is currently working with partners to use both the handbook and the upcoming meetings to secure concrete ministerial support for water, hygiene and sanitation during and after COVID19. SWA partners are also being engaged and are expected to demonstrate their support by making and following through on commitments to achieving strong systems and financing for water, sanitation and hygiene. SWA works with a mutual accountability mechanism which places emphasis on actions of governments and all other partners because no one institution can bend the arc of history towards more equitable services for all.
Governments and their partners must invest in water, sanitation and hygiene as if our lives depend on them, because, well, they do!
Sitali is Head of Country Engagement, Sanitation and Water for All
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