WaterAid’s vision is of a world where everyone has access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene. We all have a role to play in making access to these essentials normal for everyone, everywhere, by 2030, and businesses are crucial in bringing about the step change needed to meet this global challenge.
We place huge value on the input and collaboration of water companies here in the UK and across the world which includes financial, practical and innovative support. And our aim is to ensure all business, no matter what sector they are in, are aware of the value of water, sanitation and hygiene.
No-one argues against the fact that water is essential; the devastating health impacts of untreated human waste and poor hygiene has been understood since the 1850s. Yet the need to provide safe, clean water and sanitation for all is often undervalued and even not recognised at all.
Last year, I met with many business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos where I brought the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene to the agenda. As I wrote at the time, it was encouraging to see climate change and water as hot topics of discussion. Yet broadly these discussions were focused on how these issues may threaten business in the future and how to mitigate them, rather than the impact they are already having on millions of people worldwide.
Today, one in nine people around the world do not have access to clean water. One in three don’t have a decent toilet to use.
The primary responsibility of business leaders is to ensure the successful continuation of their business, where they are able to charge more for their products and services than they cost to supply. In essence, bottom line is the ability to make money.
But as I saw in Davos, the real leaders in the corporate world realise that a push for profit without regard to the wider environment or communities in which they work, is poor business sense. So practices that heedlessly exploit and degrade natural resources or the ability of people to live safe and dignified lives threaten the long-term sustainability of a business.
Those of us in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector need to be more vocal about how the reliable provision of clean water, decent sanitation and hygiene is essential for the long-term sustainability of business.
Collectively we must demonstrate the benefits of increased efficiency, reduced sickness, boosted productivity and essentially lower risk and higher profits for business owners and shareholders that access to clean drinking water and toilets bring. We are not asking for philanthropy, but investment in WASH services that make clear business sense. Who wouldn’t want a workforce with lower sickness levels and having to take less time off to care for ill family members? Or to be able to count on the availability of water at all times of the year?
In our new guide Strengthening the Business Case for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: How to Measure Value for Your Business, WaterAid provides evidence that improving water, sanitation and hygiene isn’t simply a philanthropic measure or means to tick a corporate social responsibility box.
It also makes good business sense; services that will not only benefit the people they employ, but their businesses now and in the future. And the bigger picture is that tackling the perilous state of sanitation everywhere will greatly improve the quality of water for safe drinking, and therefore improve health, nutrition and education worldwide to the benefit of all.
We are a global community and cannot separate our lives here from the fate of a worker in a garment factory in Bangladesh who cannot work or feed their family, let alone send their children to school because of ill-health caused by lack of clean water or sanitation. We may not see the immediate consequences, but they are most certainly there.
So what next for WaterAid and what next for the involvement of water companies?
Following on from my meetings in Davos. I am also now liaising with the Davos organisers to persuade them to bring adaptation to climate change and sanitation on to the mainstream agenda at the 2020 meeting. This could be a huge opportunity to help business change the focus of their discussions on these topics and take action now. For those of you due to attend Davos, please use your influence to back this call. Make it clear these are issues that you and your business care about.
Together with your support, we can all aim for a world where people’s access to clean water and sanitation at work and at home is no longer a cause for discussion, but a natural given.