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Water and Sanitation

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

I am delighted to have the opportunity in the run-up to world water day tomorrow to initiate this brief debate on global access to water and sanitation, and to highlight one of the most significant challenges facing the world. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation remains one of the major barriers that must be overcome if real and sustainable progress is to be made in education, health, food security and economic productivity. Without water, nothing else works.

An estimated 800 million people globally still do not have access to clean water, but an even larger number— 2.6 billion, or more than one third of the world population—have no access to even basic sanitation and so are exposed to the health risks associated with poor sanitary infrastructure. As a direct result, people—the majority of them children—are dying of diseases that the provision of potable water and sanitation could eliminate almost entirely. That is illustrated by the fact that the biggest killer of children under five in sub-Saharan Africa, and the second biggest globally, are diarrhoeal diseases, the vast majority of which are entirely preventable conditions caused by inadequate sanitation and hygiene.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this debate. Will she join me in congratulating some of the faith-based organisations and other charitable institutions that in small parts of sub-Saharan Africa have made significant progress in delivering clean water to those communities?

I do indeed, and I will name some of them later, but there are many others that I will not have the opportunity to name. I recognise that that co-operation and collaboration is an important part of trying to expand the network of sanitation and clean water internationally.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this enormously important debate. Does she agree that initiatives such as Oxfam’s water week, which engages children in both education and fundraising for specific projects in specific countries—Mali last year and Niger this year—are an important way of raising awareness and achieving practical results?

I agree entirely. It is important to engage young people in that work, because they will no doubt carry it forward.

Annually, more children under five die as a result of diseases arising from inadequate sanitation and hygiene than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined, so the impact is huge. Open drainage channels and sewers provide the environment conducive to the breeding of mosquitoes, which spread such diseases.

I am a former civil engineer with a long-standing interest in international development, and this issue is particularly close to my heart. During my term as lord mayor of Belfast, WaterAid was one of my nominated charities, and since my election to Parliament I have continued to work closely with it and other charities, such as Tearfund, to pursue this issue with the UK Government. I thank both charities for their support to me in preparing for today’s debate and, more important, for their work with others to maximise access to clean water and sanitation globally.

I agree that there is a huge amount of cross-party support for the hon. Lady’s case, but will she join me in congratulating the Government on their commitment to overseas spending, which creates an environment in which we can take up the challenge? The money is available to do the job throughout the world, and the Government should be congratulated on that.

I have congratulated the Government on that on numerous occasions, and I will congratulate them on other matters, but I will also press them on areas where further progress could be made.

This subject is important to my constituents, many of whom signed up to the recent Tearfund postcard campaign calling for more action on water and sanitation. Last October, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I joined Tearfund to present more than 10,000 postcards to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, to highlight the importance of action.

I recognise that in the UK, the biggest step change in public health and mortality rates resulted not from medical advances, but from widened access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. During the late 19th century, as both water and sewerage infrastructure expanded dramatically, the life expectancy of an average member of the population in this country rose by 15 years—a remarkable increase, delivered over a short period.

I am chairman of the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world. Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever progress has been made on access to drinking water, which we acknowledge is improving, only 63% of the world population have access to sanitation, which is well below the 75% target, and that if we do not get sanitation right, water will not be right either?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to come to that point.

The British Medical Association has recognised that commissioning of the sewerage system in London was the most important breakthrough in public health—more significant than the discovery of penicillin or development of vaccine programmes. If developing nations are to experience a similar step change in their outcomes, there can be no more effective place to start than investment in water, sanitation and hygiene.

There has been progress, particularly on access to clean water, and this month brought the welcome news that the UN millennium development goal on water has been met five years early. However, it is clear that approximately 10% of the world population still have no access to clean water and there is still much work to be done. Also, the global figure disguises the disparities in progress between, and even within, different countries. That needs to be considered carefully when planning future programmes. For example, almost half the progress towards the millennium development goal can be accounted for by progress in India and China alone, whereas progress in sub-Saharan Africa has generally been much slower; and although Sierra Leone, for example, has made significant improvements in access to water, with a national average of 55%, that masks a significant disparity between rural access, at 35%, and urban access, at 87%.

Even allowing for the complexities of the picture, significant progress has been made on access to clean water. However, my understanding is that, by contrast, the millennium development goal on access to sanitation is not on track for delivery. Indeed, it has been identified as one of the most off-track millennium development goals. I would welcome the Minister’s views on what action the UK Government could take to try to ensure that focus is maintained on taking forward work on that specific problem.

At the current rate of progress, it has been estimated that it could take 350 years to ensure that everyone in Africa alone has access to adequate sanitation. That differential delivery between water and sanitation may be due in part to the stigma that surrounds discussion of sanitation in many cultures, including our own. That needs to be tackled in the developing world because education on hygiene is critical to improving public health. In India, for example, it is estimated that almost 51% of the population still defecate in the open, and that poor sanitation costs India around 6% of its GDP.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this debate and on her continuing work. Does she agree that if we are to make real progress, the key is partnership working by voluntary organisations and Church groups, which have been mentioned, and substantial Government resources? We are delighted that the Secretary of State is to attend the high-level WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—meeting in Washington. At that meeting, should he not focus on partnership working between countries globally, and ensuring that resources across the piece are shared and co-ordinated more effectively?

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. It is hugely important to maximise the benefit of our investment.

Lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene also carries with it significant gender implications that can, in turn, impact more widely on communities.

I would like to make a little progress first.

In developing countries, women and girls still shoulder most of the responsibility for the collection of clean drinking water from wells, which may involve long and arduous daily journeys. The provision of simple village standpipes could therefore improve not only health, but education outcomes for women and girls in particular, because, freed from that daily chore, they would have time to attend school. The provision of proper and private sanitation facilities in schools has also been shown to reduce education drop-out rates for girls reaching puberty. Women are more likely to bear the burden of caring for those who contract diseases as a result of poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and that significantly restricts the degree to which they can be economically active and independent. Most disturbingly, lack of access to water and sanitation can leave women and girls more vulnerable to violence and sexual assault, either as they travel long distances to collect water, or as they wait until nightfall before defecating in the open.

By investing in water and sanitation, we can improve the health and education of millions of people around the world and tackle gender inequality. Access to water and sanitation transforms lives, improves health outcomes and lifts people out of poverty. With every penny of public expenditure under scrutiny, it is important that the resources available for international development are invested in ways that will have maximum impact and are sustainable. Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene meets that economic test.

The UN human development report estimates that for every pound invested in water and sanitation, £8 is returned in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health costs. It is therefore a prudent as well as a necessary investment. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa 5% of its gross domestic product—an amount equivalent to the aid received by the region. That fact demonstrates the link between long-term sustainable development, and the specific direction of aid towards water, sanitation and hygiene projects. The impact of such investment could be multiplied if we collaborate with other Governments and with non-governmental organisations and charities that can assist by providing education to local communities through Church and community networks, and by supporting increased capacity among state and non-state players in the field.

The provision of water and sanitation is a fundamental part of the foundations on which our progress on other millennium development goals will be built. It is also an area that delivers significant economic and social returns. One would imagine, therefore, that it would be the aid investment of choice, but sadly that is not the case. Speaking of water and sanitation, Kofi Annan stated:

“No other issue suffers such disparity between its human importance and its political priority.”

In 2010, the UN-Water global annual assessment of sanitation and drinking water looked at the amount spent by donor countries on aid for that sector. It found that although levels of international aid have been rising since the mid-‘90s, the proportion spent on water and sanitation has declined. In the mid-‘90s, the proportion of aid spent on water, sanitation and hygiene was more than 8%, but that has now fallen to less than 5.5%. The UK’s bilateral aid to the WASH sector made up less than 2% of our total aid budget in 2010, and less than 50% of the average reported by other donors.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this subject before the House. She has mentioned the importance of water for sanitation, but it is used for other things such as watering crops, or the work done by the churches. Water is also used to make bricks for industry, so it is important for employment, health and food. Does the hon. Lady agree that sanitation is one part of the need for wider water provision?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Water security and the cost of water in many developing countries limits crop production, because people cannot afford to irrigate their crops. Countries that are able to develop irrigation systems have more productive fields and are able to produce more food to feed their people. It is a hugely important issue.

Members have asked me to be positive about what the UK Government are doing, and of course I will be where appropriate. The UK Government have taken a lead on development policy, and I commend them on that. In 2006, DFID expanded its list of basic public services to include water and sanitation, and the UK and Dutch Governments announced their support for a global framework for action at the UN in September 2008. The UK Government played a key role in the development of that global partnership, and “Sanitation and Water for All: A Global Framework for Action”, was formally launched in 2010, with a high-level meeting that was linked to the World Bank spring meeting in Washington. The timing allowed Finance Ministers and those with responsibility for the delivery of water and sanitation to attend. The second high-level meeting will be in Washington next month, and through the Minister I wish to thank the Secretary of State for indicating to me and to other right hon. and hon. Members who wrote to him, that it is his intention to attend.

I also thank the Secretary of State for his pledge to continue providing support and guidance to the Sanitation and Water for All partnership. As yet, however, although 35 developing nations have indicated that they will attend, only seven donor countries have done likewise, and I urge the Government to use whatever influence they have to encourage other developed nations to engage with that key forum. I would also be grateful if the Minister outlined how the Government intend to make manifest that pledge of continued support in the coming months and years.

As I understand, DFID is close to announcing its portfolio review of water and sanitation projects, which seeks to identify where more can be done. I await eagerly the publication of that report, and perhaps the Minister will confirm when that will take place.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that the Rio+20 summit is an opportunity to link millennium development goals with sustainable development goals?

Absolutely, and it is hugely important to plan how we can streamline all those efforts. It is hard to have sustainable development unless you have access to clean water and sanitation.

Given that more than 35% of UK official development assistance is now spent through multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, I hope that DFID’s review will have assessed thoroughly the performance of such agencies in delivering progress in the sector, and considered how the UK can influence agencies to deliver increased commitments on WASH. I hope that it will also address the lack of political priority given to investment in water and sanitation when compared with other aid portfolios such as health and education. Without access to WASH, any progress achieved in other areas is significantly constrained.

One practical measure that would maximise the impact of overseas development aid, would be to integrate WASH into other connected health, education and nutrition programmes. In 2006, the International Development Committee recommended that sanitation become an integral part of the work of health advisors. I would be grateful if the Minister indicated what progress has been made on that.

In conclusion, I urge the Department for International Development to build on its activities to date, to be even more ambitious in its future goals, and to use its influence internationally to press others to do the same ahead of the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting in Washington DC next month.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for securing this important debate, and I welcome other hon. Members who have chosen to attend this morning.

Ensuring access to water and sanitation for the poorest is, to pick a metaphor, the bread and butter of development. When we get it right, so much else follows: children become more likely to reach their fifth birthday, and they are healthier and in a better position to benefit from education; women, who carry most of the world’s water, are empowered; and economic growth and prosperity are enhanced and facilitated. While we fail to deliver those most basic necessities, not only are there an estimated 2.4 million preventable deaths each year, but generations of people become trapped in poverty.

Tomorrow is world water day, and this year we have much to be proud of. We learned this month that the millennium development goal of providing access to clean drinking water has been met, and that between 1990 and 2010 more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. It is rare in international development to get news as good as that, and it shows that when aid money is spent well, it can make a tangible difference. Development works, and that is an example of the sort of progress that we can make. However, a great deal of work remains to be done. Some 783 million people remain without access to clean drinking water, and sub-Saharan Africa remains off track. The challenge is most acute for sanitation, which is one of the most off-track millennium development goals: about 40% of the world’s population—2.5 billion people—still lack basic sanitation.

The UK Government are committed to accelerating progress in that area. Last year, we made a commitment to provide 15 million people with access to clean water and 25 million people with access to sanitation and to improve hygiene for 15 million people by 2015. We are also committed to helping the world’s poorest countries to harness the full potential of their water resources and reduce the risks posed by floods, droughts and contaminated water. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Department for International Development provides support through the Government, UNICEF and NGOs, to improve access to water and sanitation. In 2010-11, that resulted in 100,000 more people having access to clean drinking water, 250,000 people in rural communities having improved sanitation and 380,000 people being targeted in hygiene promotion campaigns.

I hardly need to stress, on Budget day in the UK, how important it is that every pound of investment in this sector delivers the maximum impact. Our work in this sector, as elsewhere, is driven by the imperative that investment should deliver good value for money, be based on the best evidence of what works and be spent transparently and accountably. That is why we commissioned a review of the UK Government’s portfolio of work on water, sanitation and hygiene promotion. In particular, we wanted to know whether our investment was going to the right places, reaching the poorest and achieving the greatest impact possible. I can tell the House today, as requested by the hon. Member for Belfast East, that we will publish the details of that review to coincide with world water day tomorrow.

I am pleased to say that, overall, the review shows that the portfolio provides excellent value for money, delivering results across 14 major bilateral programmes. The review also shows that our programmes are reaching the people who need them most. In 2010-11, three quarters of the money that we spent through our country programmes was spent on basic systems—such as rural water supply schemes, hand pumps and latrines—that are most likely to reach the poorest. That is a higher proportion than for almost any other donor. We are doing that in the countries with the greatest need, such as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh and India.

Detailed evidence from the review will inform my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my other ministerial colleagues when they consider whether and how the UK Government could do more. Just as important, the Secretary of State will share that evidence with other donor countries and developing country Finance Ministers when he attends the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting in Washington on 20 April. As hon. Members will know, the UK and Dutch Governments were backers of the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, launched in 2008. Through that initiative, DFID has been seeking to secure better targeting of aid to the sanitation and water sectors, as well as improved transparency and accountability from other donors and national Governments.

At next month’s meeting, progress will be assessed against past commitments, and we expect that new commitments will be made. However, we do not want just new commitments to do more. To see an equitable spread of access to safe water and to make better progress on improvements to sanitation, we need better targeting of aid. I can assure hon. Members that the Secretary of State will, based on our own experiences, highlight how well-targeted aid can reach poor people in fragile states and encourage others to target resources more effectively.

It is an injustice that the lack of something as basic as clean water and sanitation should still adversely affect the lives of millions of people. That injustice has the potential to undermine the achievement of a range of millennium development goals. For those reasons, the Government remain committed to dealing with this important issue. To that end, we will ensure that what we do achieves the greatest impact, that we keep learning and refining our aid programmes and that we share our knowledge and evidence with our partners, so that together we can all do more in the sector of water and sanitation.

Sitting suspended.