When Environment Agency chief Sir James Bevan spoke recently at a Waterwise conference, he told delegates that the UK was perhaps just 25 years away from not having enough water to meet demand. His warning of an “existential threat” was stark. But while in this country we are used to a plentiful supply of water, much of the rest of the world cannot say the same.
Virginia Newton-Lewis, a senior policy analyst at charity WaterAid, welcomes the fact that Bevan’s “Jaws of Death” speech has helped to put water efficiency on the agenda. It may even help to raise the charity’s profile as it pursues its core mission to help ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene, as outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The scale of the challenge facing WaterAid is immense. There are 844 million people worldwide – a staggering one in nine – who don’t have access to clean water close to home. Depending on the country, the reason for this can be competition for scare resources, exacerbated by the impact of climate change, or it could be due to economic factors and a lack of political will.
“It’s an enormous challenge,” Newton-Lewis says. “How do we get people water of adequate quality and quantity so they can carry out their basic daily drinking, cooking, washing, hygiene, and maybe some small-scale kitchen garden watering? It’s about reaching the most marginalised groups who are left behind. They are our priority focus. This is a basic, basic human right. We’re not talking about giving them a power shower.”
WaterAid is an international non-governmental organisation set up by the UK water industry in 1981 as a response to the UN International Drinking Water decade (1981-90), the aim of which was to make access to clean drinking water available across the world. Fast-forward 38 years and today the charity enhances the lives of millions of people every year, working in 28 countries supported by offices in the UK, US, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Japan and India. “It is an amazing organisation – the things that go on at a country programme level are quite inspiring,” she says.
But as Newton-Lewis explains, it is sustainability and continuity of services that is key, and the charity recognises that success depends on more than simply building toilets or digging bore wells. It’s also about strengthening systems, and supporting and encouraging governments – by naming and shaming where necessary – to work in effective ways.
“It’s about making sure that with any water supply schemes we put in – whether it’s a community management system, a bore well or latrine block – when we go back two, three, four years later, the enabling systems and pieces of infrastructure will still be working in the ways the community need them to.”
She continues: “In so many of the places where we work, the water or sanitation crisis isn’t solely a problem of technology. The fundamental issue is whether you have management arrangements in place and whether you have provided something that the community wants and needs and not just something that you think they need. People will often say ‘we have a water problem or a sanitation problem’. They don’t often come to us and say ‘we’ve got an accountability problem’.”
Institutional donors such as the World Bank and the UK government’s Department for International Development (Dfid) also recognise that system strengthening and governance is critical to programme success, Newton-Lewis says. In practical terms, success depends on a lot of building blocks including institutional alignment, leadership and sustainable sources of financing. “We also work a lot around the ideas of community empowerment and a human rights-based approach to water,” she adds.
Since 2011 funding from Dfid has ensured that 80 million people worldwide have access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), but the current political climate is a huge cause for concern because the amount of money earmarked by the department for WASH programmes has fallen in recent years. OECD analysis shows that UK aid commitments to WASH fell by as much as 67 per cent between 2016 and 2017.
“The issue is of scale and ambition and the UK falls short of what is needed in the poorest countries if universal access is to be achieved,” Newton-Lewis warns. “The fall in UK aid commitments is definitely a concern. It may not show itself in terms of UK aid disbursements in the following year or two years, but, other things being equal, it will lead ultimately to lower disbursements over time.”
WaterAid has raised its concerns with DFID directly, as well as making them public. “We have also sought clarification on whether this is a continuing trend or a one-off fall, reflecting volatility in planning and implementation. We do not yet have a clear-cut answer and will be continuing to push for increased levels of aid from the UK government to the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, focused on the poorest countries.”
Against a backdrop of dwindling government funding and as competition among charities for supporters’ hard-earned cash ramps up, Newton-Lewis applauds those responsible for the inspiring campaigns that help maintain WaterAid’s profile and keep donations coming in.
Its recent Water Effect campaign showed a series of portraits of new-born babies illustrating different traditions observed by communities in 11 countries to protect mothers and welcome new babies – from postpartum porridge-making and paint masks to baptisms and beer brewing.
“We’re lucky that we have some really great people in our digital campaigns and fundraising teams who are able to innovate and keep our message fresh. We can do that because we’re really connected to our country programmes and the stories we tell are real. The reality of the situation speaks for itself.”
Newton-Lewis admits some of those stories still shock her, not least the number of healthcare facilities around the world without access to running water. “Can you imagine going to give birth in that kind of environment?” she asks. “Similarly, we’re opening up debates about menstrual hygiene and the taboos of talking about periods. Can you imagine that when you don’t have access to hygiene facilities and running water?”
The disproportionate impact that not having access to water has on women is a subject close to her heart. “The time it takes them to collect water means they can’t do anything else, and the impact on their ability to provide food to their family. Being a woman and in the context of #MeToo, it can be tough to be confronted by that,” she admits.
The charity continues to be well supported by the UK water industry, both financially (in 2018/19 the UK water sector raised over £3.25 million for the charity) but also through non-financial support and skills/expertise sharing for capacity building, training and collaboration on projects around the world. Yorkshire Water’s five-year project to support the delivery of clean water and decent toilets to 20 towns in Ethiopia and Anglian Water’s Beacon project in Nepal are just two programmes that have yielded incredible successes (see box, page 19).
Bearing in mind the predicted massive growth in the number of people living in small towns, the water industry’s input is invaluable. “Because these small towns are far away from the political clout of the megacities, they’re quite overlooked and don’t have money or finances but they’re extremely dynamic and evolving places. Evolving from a large village to a small town to a large town extremely quickly means they often don’t have services. Having relationships with a water industry partner who can help in the small to medium town space is really useful.”
Newton-Lewis brushes off suggestions that the industry’s involvement in overseas water projects is little more than a means to tick a corporate social responsibility box and helps deflect criticism of water leakage and wastage. “Of course we would advocate good water management and improving the performance of utilities,” she says, “but our focus is on the most marginalised groups globally – those on seven to ten litres of water a day. That’s where our discussion and awareness-raising lies.”
And the very visible difference the charity is making makes it all worthwhile, she says. “Everyone at WaterAid remains hopeful. People in the field can really see the difference that the projects make. I’m confident we are making and will continue to make a difference.”
Anglian Water’s Beacon Project in Nepal: “It’s much more than money, it’s about shared value concepts”
Anglian Water and its alliance partners are working with WaterAid offering capacity building, training and partnering through a collaboration with the local water utility in Lahan, a fast-growing town in south-eastern Nepal.
The project will enhance water supplies, extend piped services to those who do not have them and work with key stakeholders to bring appropriate sanitation and waste management to the town. Currently, less than half of Lahan’s 98,000 people have access to piped water. Its water network consists of just one treatment works, five boreholes and around 59km of pipes, operated by 21 staff, only eight of whom work full time. There are no adequate waste management systems.
A key aim is for the Anglian Water team to share knowledge on water resource planning, expansion plans, finance and tariffs, and business planning with stakeholders and staff from utility operators and service providers in Lahan. It’s the first time WaterAid has developed a collaborative partnership with a water company, its supply chain and government bodies to deliver a municipality-wide approach to the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene. It’s already making a vital difference to communities.
For Anglian Water the project gives partners an emotional connection to the project while also recognising the learning and development opportunities for staff, Newton-Lewis says. “There’s a tremendous amount of optimism and positivity around the project because it’s a new and useful application of their skills. In a totally non-cynical way, it’s really meaningful and they’re effecting change in a really efficient way.”