How does WASH contribute to all SDGs?

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is ambitious. 17 goals. 244 indicators. To achieve this feat of global development, we must recognise how progress in one area aids progress in another.

Goal 6 is one of the most interconnected goals. Increasing access to water, sanitation and hygiene aids economic development, poverty reduction, education, health and more.

Goal 1. End Poverty in all its forms everywhere

Eradicating poverty remains one of the greatest challenges and although the amount of people living in extreme poverty has dropped, globally 800 million people still live on less than US$ 1.25. Most of these people lack access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services.

Target 1.4 states that “by 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”  

The reference to basic services includes WASH services, of which there are still 844 million people lacking basic drinking water, 2.3 billion people lacking basic sanitation services and 892 million people remain forced to defecate in the open. Not having access to WASH services has many health and economic impacts, which exacerbates existing inequalities and traps people in a cycle of poverty.

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

155 million children under the age of five are affected by stunting, and 50 million children are affected by wasting. Half of these chronic cases of undernutrition are related to infections caused by poor access to WASH. Repeated infections affect how nutrients are absorbed within the body and inhibit development. Stunting early in a child’s life can cause irreversible damage to cognitive and physical development, which can impact education and employment in adulthood.

Target 2.2 commits to “by 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.”

We cannot improve nutrition in the poorest communities if these communities lack access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. 

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

Ensuring healthy lives and wellbeing for all is not possible without access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. 38% of healthcare facilities in low and middle income counties do not have access to water, 35% of healthcare facilities do not have soap for handwashing and 19% do not have adequate sanitation. This leaves patients of all ages (in particular children under the age of five) susceptible to illness including infection, diseases and diarrhoea. Every year 289,000 children die before they reach the age of five from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation.  Maternal mortality rates in health care facilities without access to water are high due to increased risk of sepsis and other infections. 

The first month in a child's life is the most vulnerable time for a child’s survival and having a safe, hygienic environment is essential. 1 in 4 newborn deaths are due to sepsis and infections that could have been prevented by good hygiene. Mothers are also at risk during childbirth as health care facilities without access to water have higher mortality rates due to infection. Every year 303,000 women die during childbirth.

Target 3.1 commits to “by 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.”

Target 3.2 commits to “by 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births.”

Target 3.3 commits to “by 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.”

Target 3.8 commits to “Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.”

None of these goals will be achieved unless WASH services are standard in all homes, health care facilities and communities.

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

WASH in school is crucial for inclusive education and the health of children, yet in the least developed countries half of schools don’t have access to water or sanitation services. Schools without decent water, sanitation and hygiene access have a higher rate of disease transmissions, diarrhoeal illnesses and leave students vulnerable.

If there are no private areas for menstrual hygiene management, girls are more likely to stay at home during their period. In South Asia, 1 in 3 girls miss school during their periods. Missing education increases the likelihood that girls will eventually drop out and increases gender disparities in education. Access to basic drinking water, single-sex sanitation and basic hand washing facilities can reduce the gender gap, increase attendance at school and ensure that young girls are given the best possible educational opportunities.

Target 4.1 commits to “by 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes”

Target 4.5 commits to “by 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.”

Target 4.a commits to "build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all." 

Indicator 4.a.1 measures "proportion of schools with access to (a) electricity; (b) the Internet for pedagogical purposes; (c) computers for pedagogical (d) adapted infrastructure and materials for students with disabilities; (e) basic drinking water; (f) single-sex basic sanitation facilities; and (g) basic handwashing facilities.

Quality education centres must have access to safe, gender sensitive, private WASH services. Without them, the targets from Goal 4 will not be achieved.

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Lack of WASH access disproportionately affects women. When there are no facilities at schools, clinics and other public places women are unable to manage their menstruation hygienically, in privacy and with dignity. This can cause girls to drop out of school and women to miss work during their period, affecting them socially and economically. In addition to this, women in 8 out of 10 households are responsible for collecting water, often travelling long distances and carrying a heavy load. This is time that should be spent on education and economic opportunities.  

There is a long way to go before we ensure that everyone everywhere has access to good WASH facilities, and we need to be sure that gender equality and women have a say in decisions around WASH and are at the centre when creating sustainable WASH services.

Target 5.1 commits to “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.”

This will not be possible unless WASH services are prioritised to allow women to access economic and educational opportunities. 

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

Agriculture makes up nearly 70% of freshwater withdrawals, making water access essential for the quarter of the global workforce who rely on agriculture for their income. Safely managed water is essential for crop production and reducing the risk of crop contamination through water-borne diseases. With the world’s population predicted to reach 8.5 billion people by 2030, water withdrawals for irrigation and livestock will increase, putting pressure on regions already suffering from water stress. Increasing water efficiency, ensuring sustainable withdrawals and supply of fresh water is key if these communities are going to compete with population growth.

263 million people (80% of them women) spend more than 30 minutes collecting water from an improved water source, this wasted time could have been spent on participating in income generating activities. Lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in the workplace can have a negative impact on productivity for women and can result in women stopping working during menstruation. 

Access to improved WASH can increase agricultural production, reduce the risk of food insecurity and reduce the gender gap in the workplace.

Target 8.5 commits to “by 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.”

This will not be achieved unless there is access to WASH in workplaces and communities.

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

WASH access affects the most marginalised communities. Those living in poverty, with disabilities, in rural or slum areas are less likely to have access to WASH services. This exacerbates the inequalities that already exist in societies, and creates a cycle of poverty. 1 billion people are living with a disability; 80% of those are in developing countries. These individuals are less likely to have access to education and employment, leading to a higher risk of poverty and worse health outcomes. Ensuring that WASH services are accessible to everyone gives people with disabilities the dignity they deserve in accessing this most basic need. When schools have accessible WASH services, children with disabilities can access education. When workplaces have accessible WASH, people with disabilities can access economic opportunities which helps them lift themselves out of poverty. 

Target 10.2 commits to “by 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”

This will not be possible until WASH services are delivered to everyone, everywhere.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The provision of water and sanitation services for the poorest household and slums is a major challenge cities face; affecting not only the public health of their entire populations, but also the world's epidemiological security. By 2050 70% of the world’s population will be based in urban centres. With slums and peri urban areas expanding, it is essential to ensure that WASH services are prioritised. In particular investment in the sanitation chain is important to ensure that faecal sludge is contained and treated.

Target 11.1 commits to “by 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.” WASH services are an essential part of a creating a safe, clean city.

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

For world’s poorest communities in particular, climate change will largely be experienced through impacts on water, such as flooding (which can cause pollution and disease,) and unpredictable rainfall and droughts which reduce reliable access to water. In 2000 1.6bn people lived under severe water stress. By 2050 freshwater availability will be further strained and 40% of the global populations will be living in locations of severe water stress. Good quality water and sanitation are key measures to build resilience against climate change, by reducing the impact of unpredictable rainfall, and reducing the need for people to turn to unsafe water supplies in the event of natural disasters.

Target 13.1 commits to “strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.”

Climate adaptive WASH services are essential to achieving this.

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

Globally, over 80% of all wastewater is discharged directly into the environment without treatment, polluting rivers, lakes and oceans. This pollution affects water sources and in the long term disrupts ecosystems. The wildlife that inhabits these areas is not only harmed, but is in turn harmful to the people in surrounding communities. This puts pressure on environmental systems and resources, particularly for the 3 billion people that depend on marine and coastal resources for their livelihoods, and affects water quality and availability for marine life and surrounding communities. This environmental damage costs billions of dollars, affecting sustainability and the economy on a global scale.

159 million people collect drinking water directly from surface water sources, this means they collect drinking water from a river, lake or stream. Diarrhoea, infections and water borne diseases are some of the many associated risks with drinking unclean water. If these sources become polluted, these communities are even more at risk of falling ill. Effective faecal sludge management systems are essential to ensuring that water is treated before it returns to the environment.

Target 14.1 commits to “by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.”

Safely managed sanitation services including proper faecal sludge management systems are essential to achieving this target.

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

By 2030, the population is expected to be 8.5 billion. Already 844 million people are living without access to basic water supplies. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the Earth’s resources are effectively managed and able to cope with the strain associated with population increase. With current population growth and water management practices, the world will face a 40% shortfall between forecast demand and available supply of water by 2030.With increased populations, over consumption and a finite supply of freshwater it is only a matter of time before resources are exhausted and water conflicts occur.

Good management of water resources, transboundary co-operation and participation of local communities is vital as resources are depleted, making SDG 6 key to reducing conflict in areas suffering from water stress and promoting peace and justice for all.

Target 16.1 commits to “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere.”

Prioritising sustainable, climate adaptive access to water decreases the threat of the next conflict being over water.