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| Last Updated:26/03/2014

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The vital role of business in tackling the water and sanitation crisis, 24 March 2014


Universal access to safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene will add $220bn a year to the world economy, explains Dave Hillyard, head of major partnerships at WaterAid


2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation but with the necessary partnerships in place universal access is possible by 2030. Photograph: Photographer: MUSTAFAH ABDULAZIZ/WaterAid/ Mustafah Abdulaziz

Take a moment to reflect on the over 750 million people who do not have access to safe drinking water, and the 2.5 billion people who live without basic sanitation.


We take these services as a given in the west, and we've done so for so long now that it's difficult to truly imagine life where something as basic as clean drinking water isn't just on tap. A world where everyone, everywhere has clean water, somewhere safe to use the toilet and has hygiene services. This will be a healthier, better educated and more productive world – more productive to the tune of $220bn a year to the world economy.


That's the impact the World Health Organisation has conservatively estimated that reaching everyone everywhere with water and sanitation would have. They also estimate that a lack of these services is currently costing us $260bn every year due to increased healthcare costs, high mortality, school hours missed and time taken off from work.


At WaterAid we know that ensuring everyone, everywhere has access to water, sanitation and hygiene is fundamental to eradicating extreme poverty. We also know that this is an achievable goal. With the necessary partnerships in place between government, civil society and the private sector, universal access is possible by 2030. This would be a defining moment and one of humanities greatest achievements.


In the last decade water stewardship has been rapidly moving up the corporate agenda, driven primarily around operational risks associated with securing access to sufficient water for their operations. However, the business risks associated with unfair and inequitable access to safe water and sanitation for communities has been limited.


Water is the ultimate shared and precious resource and we believe that the private sector has a vital role to play. This can be through direct service provision, championing change as essential for economic development, or as part of corporate water management strategies.


Private sector involvement should support national strategies that aim to realise the right of everyone to access water, sanitation and hygiene. Effective state governance of water resources and pro-poor regulation that builds a responsible, sustainable private or public sector water and sanitation service is essential for developing economies to function effectively. Without it the health and wellbeing of employees, communities and consumers will be compromised.


Reputational risks associated with appropriating scarce water resources will likely rise as water quality and quantity is compromised, particularly in already water scarce regions. Growing under-served urban and peri-urban populations are particularly vulnerable, especially in respect of sanitation, with consequent impacts for communities and the environment. There are clear commercial benefits for taking a holistic and integrated approach to water, sanitation and hygiene, in addition to the moral, humanitarian and developmental imperatives.


At WaterAid we are campaigning for a water and sanitation goal to be at the forefront of the new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will be set by the UN in 2015.


A few companies are showing leadership on this issue and responding to the opportunity. Collective action across sectors will be critical to success and we urge more in the business community to get involved. We ask that they engage with the existing efforts of actors in the water stressed locations they share with poor communities.


We challenge the private sector to increase their focus on the water and sanitation crisis and ask them to bring their innovation, creativity, knowledge and financial investment to help tackle this solvable global challenge.


Dave Hillyard is head of major partnerships at WaterAid


Find out more about WaterAid's Everyone Everywhere 2030 campaign.


WaterAid is an Anglo American Group Foundation partner, supporting WaterAid's work into equity and inclusion. The Foundation currently funds research in Southern Africa examining the relationship between access to water, sanitation and hygiene and HIV/AIDS.


The water and sanitation crisis, coupled with the HIV pandemic are serious problems in Southern Africa with nine of the 10 countries with highest prevalence rates worldwide in this region. People living with the virus can require as much as five times more clean water than average and are more susceptible to infections from poor sanitation and hygiene.