This Week’s Opportunity to Save Lives: The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership

Written by

Lisa Schechtman
Lisa Schechtman

Lisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.

What if I were to tell you that, this week, the United States government has the chance to contribute to saving the lives of at least 400,000 children by the year 2015?

Here are the facts:

1.    A key intervention that could save them has a return of at least $8 in saved health care costs and increased economic productivity for every $1 spent.
2.    The cause of these deaths costs countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa 5%-6% of their Gross Domestic Product each year.
3.    The solutions we’re talking about have been shown to be in the top five most cost-effective of hundreds of health interventions reviewed by the World Bank.

So I’m offering efficiency, reduced poverty, improved health, and prevented deaths. The solution? Safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

The US and more than 50 other governments are poised to accelerate action on WASH, with all its broader benefits. Their opportunity is the second High-Level Meeting of the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership (SWA) here in Washington, DC.

SWA is a multilateral approach to addressing the most basic of needs around the world.  Its governance body includes civil society, such as my own organization, donors, and Ministers of Finance and Water and Sanitation from countries in need of accelerated action. Its purpose is fairly simple: to support the 57 countries farthest off-track in meeting their goals for safe drinking water and sanitation by building political will, endorsing national plans backed by domestic resources, pooling donor funds to help get the job done, and providing technical support to ensure the job is done well and in a way that lasts.

It’s an important mandate. The lack of safe drinking water and sanitation currently leads to diarrheal diseases that are estimated to cause 2.5 million deaths each year. The global community has agreed to put a stop to these needless deaths, but we haven’t quite gotten there.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to end in 2015, whether or not we have accomplished them. While we have met the target to reduce by half the proportion of people without safe water, the target for sanitation is not estimated to be reached in sub-Saharan Africa for more than 150 years, unless something changes. Yet, if something changes and the target is achieved in those 57 countries, 400,000 more children’s lives could be saved by 2015.

So, how do we get there?

Political will is the first critical step, and this is one essential role of SWA. People are uncomfortable talking about poop, and poop is what we’re talking about. Even the US government, which has long been a leader in international development and global health assistance, doesn’t much like talking about it.

But they are doing something about it: The US government is one of the top donors to WASH, both through bilateral and multilateral channels. In fiscal year 2010, our bilateral assistance alone helped 2.84 million people gain access to safe drinking water and a further 2.88 million get sanitation.

The US has also been leading on the capacity-building arm of SWA. Known by the clunky acronym NPRI, the National Planning for Results Initiative is designed to pool expertise to help countries accomplish what they set out to do, and make it last. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle, but without the US officially joining SWA and all governments upping their game, it won’t be enough.

Right now, 783 million people lack safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack sanitation. But, what if I told you that 2.5 million lives would be saved every year if everyone on the planet had access to safe drinking water and sanitation? Would you join me in thanking the US government for its support…and urging more?

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