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Billions lack access to safe water

Billions will have no access to safe household drinking water by 2030 unless the pace of change is quadrupled, warns a new report from WHO and UNICEF.

The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report –  Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000 – 2020 – shows that 3 in 10 citizens worldwide have been unable to wash their hands at home with soap and water during the pandemic. Which gives an indication to the scale of the challenge that lies ahead to achieve sustainable development goal (SDG) 6: to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030’.

“Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene must be a global priority if we are to end this pandemic and build more resilient health systems,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Some progress has been made in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, the report shows, with 74% of citizens globally having access to safe drinking water at home in 2020, up from 70% in 2016. While the percentage of people with proper handwashing facilities increased to 71% from 67% over the same period.

Investment

A percentage point rise here or there is of no comfort, though, when the bottom line is humans are suffering because they are being deprived access to their basic human rights.

Dr Katrina Charles is an Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and Co-director of REACH, a programme which improves water security for those most in need.

Responding to the report, Dr Charles said: “Even after 20 years working in this field, I find these numbers shocking. Water and sanitation have been recognised as critical to human health for centuries, and yet this is where we are today.

“In some parts of Bangladesh, for example, families face a stark choice – between water from an aquifer that is increasingly salty, or surface water that tastes fine but is unsafe. When children, in particular, have to rely on unsafe drinking water, the consequences are devastating.”

Dr Charles continued: “There is also another dimension to this announcement: the way that climate change is affecting access to water in particular areas. Millions have lost access due to storms, floods, droughts and other climate events. 

“Through our work in Bangladesh, we have seen a cyclone destroy a water filter that wasn’t repaired for 10 months. In Ethiopia, we see the unreliability of piped water systems because although they have the pipe infrastructure, water storage is inadequate to ensure year-round availability. In Kenya, we have seen how schools have to use limited budgets to buy water from vendors in the dry season when their water sources dry up.

“Today’s report is clear. Scientific research, effective policies and huge investment are needed urgently.”

Innovation

Scientists at Cardiff University this week unveiled a revolutionary new water disinfectant, created using hydrogen and air, that could prove millions of times more effective at destroying viruses and bacteria than traditional methods.

The research, published in the journal Nature Catalysis, suggests the technology, which can be produced in situ anywhere in the world offers an ‘unprecedented opportunity to provide clean water to communities that need it most’.

Co-author of the study Professor Graham Hutchings, Regius Professor of Chemistry at the Cardiff Catalysis Institute, said: “The significantly enhanced bactericidal and virucidal activities achieved when reacting hydrogen and oxygen using our catalyst shows the potential for revolutionising water disinfection technologies around the world.

“We now have proven one-step process where, besides the catalyst, inputs of contaminated water and electricity are the only requirements to attain disinfection. 

“Crucially, this process presents the opportunity to rapidly disinfect water over timescales in which conventional methods are ineffective, whilst also preventing the formation of hazardous compounds and biofilms, which can help bacteria and viruses to thrive.”

Investing in research like this, as well as rolling out proven water innovations at scale, is now critical.

And many of the solutions already exist.

Earlier this year serial pioneer Bertrand Piccard and his Solar Impulse Foundation reached, and surpassed, their target to identify ‘1000 solutions’ that can accelerate the delivery of the SDGs, many of which are designed to improve water quality.

“We now have the proof that enough solutions exist today to make our world more efficient, and sustainable. Therefore, no excuses are left for inaction as decision-makers cannot pretend anymore that ecology is too expensive, hurts the economy, and destroys jobs,” Bertrand said.

To help policymakers, business leaders, investors and other key decision makers access the innovations they need, the Foundation’s Solutions Guide offers a searchable tool for users to discover ‘solutions to problems in specific geographical, industrial, or financial settings’.

The ‘1000’ solutions ecosystem is just one example of the global innovation response to the world’s water crisis.

In March MIT engineers revealed that a straw-like substance in nonflowering trees can be fabricated to make inexpensive filters that purify dirty water to remove more than 99% of pathogens like E. coli and rotavirus from water.

So the quadrupling of progress to achieve SDG6 is possible because the tools are available to do it. There just needs to be the collective will do get on with it.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore added: “The time has come to dramatically accelerate our efforts to provide every child and family with the most basic needs for their health and well-being, including fighting off infectious diseases like COVID-19.”

Individuals are also making a huge impact, shown by the inroads being made by organisation’s like Charity: water, which has helped nearly 12 million people gain access to clean water. All the money it receives in public donations is invested 100% into providing clean water where it is needed most. Making it one way everyone with some spare money can have a guaranteed impact.

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Iain Robertson
Written By

Iain is an experienced writer, journalist and lecturer, who held editorships with a number of business focussed publications before co-founding and becoming editor of Innovators Magazine. Iain is also the strategic director for OnePoint5Media.

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