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World Water Day

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to raise the important issue of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

Members will be aware of my long-standing interest in the issue both through my involvement in international development and my professional background. For 10 years before entering full-time politics, I practised as a civil engineer and spent the last five years of my engineering career working in sewerage rehabilitation and design. Others have said that that was good preparation for politics, but I could not possibly comment.

Through my work, I became increasingly aware and supportive of the work being done by WaterAid and other non-governmental organisations and charities to address the deficit of clean water and sanitation infrastructure in many developing nations. I believe it is vital to keep international development needs, especially those as basic and essential as water and sanitation, on the political agenda. Given that 2.6 billion people have no access to adequate and hygienic sanitation methods, the subject of the debate is inevitably and unavoidably broad, but the issue also impacts widely across a range of development objectives. That breadth of impact has contributed to the continuing and increasing political attention that matters related to water and sanitation have been receiving, as there is growing recognition that investment in water and sanitation can have a transformational effect on the lives of people in ways that were previously overlooked.

The timing of the debate is apposite for several reasons: first, world water day is on Saturday 22 March; secondly, we are at a defining moment with respect to the post-2015 development agenda; and, thirdly, the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting will take place in April. I will touch on each of those reasons in my speech, but I want to begin by noting the significance of water and sanitation in the context of last Saturday’s international women’s day.

Of the 2.6 billion people without access to adequate and hygienic sanitation methods, 526 million are girls and women. The impact on their lives, however, is disproportionate. These are girls and women without access to any form of sanitation, meaning that they are forced to defecate in the open, or in bushes or ditches, and they are forced to cope with menstruation in the absence of any real privacy, which adds further indignity to their ordeal. This forces women to make difficult choices: to wait until dark to use a public toilet, where one is available; to defecate in the open; or instead to defecate in their own homes. The World Health Organisation has calculated that women and girls in developing countries spend 98 billion hours each year searching for a place to go to the toilet, more than twice the total hours worked every year by the entire UK labour force.

Women who lack safe access to sanitation, or have no access at all, may end up waiting until it is dark to go to the toilet, have to walk long distances to find an isolated spot in the open, or use often poor public amenities. There are many reported incidents of men hiding in public latrines at night, waiting to rob or assault those who enter. Women and girls defecating in the open are also more at risk of rape and sexual assault.

A WaterAid poll of women in the slums of Lagos in Nigeria, where 40% of women are forced to go to the toilet outside, found that one quarter have had first-hand or second-hand experience of harassment, a threat of violence or actual assault in the past 12 months alone. Furthermore, 67% of women interviewed in Lagos said that they felt unsafe using shared or community toilets in public places.

The second choice is to defecate at home, which carries with it enormous social stigma and can result in isolation. In addition to the stigma, resorting to so-called “flying toilets”—plastic bags or buckets used at home—has detrimental consequences for the health of the family. The links between poor sanitation, water, and illness are well established, with an increased risk of diarrhoea, as well as infections such as trachoma, which can lead to blindness.

Some 768 million people have poor water quality, more than 2.5 billion people have poor sanitation and 1.8 million people die from diarrhoea as a direct result of that, so does the hon. Lady feel that the Minister should be saying in his response that international water aid should be a priority?

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and he is right about the importance of water and sanitation. The biggest single health improvement in the UK came as a direct result of the introduction of sanitation and sewerage systems; in this city alone that one measure added 15 years to average life expectancy.

As a result of trying to limit going to the bathroom for long periods of time and drinking less water over the course of the day, women are also more susceptible to urinary tract infections and dehydration, adversely affecting their health. As women are generally responsible for the disposal of human waste when provision is inadequate, they are also exposed more frequently to diseases such as dysentery and cholera. It has been calculated that every day 2,000 mothers lose a child due to illnesses caused by poor sanitation and dirty water. Half the hospital beds in developing countries are filled by people suffering from diseases caused purely by poor water, sanitation and hygiene. Such statistics are staggering, unimaginable and, in this day and age, unjustifiable. These women and girls are suffering from shame, indignity and disease in their everyday lives as a result of something as routine and necessary as carrying out basic bodily functions.

Lack of access to private sanitation facilities also prevents many young girls from continuing in school beyond puberty, limiting their ability to become financially independent and to contribute fully to their community, and denying them the right to a proper education. History shows that the health, welfare and productivity of developing country populations are closely linked with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene. Few interventions have a greater impact on the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people, particularly women and girls, than reducing the time spent collecting clean water, dealing with sanitation and addressing the health problems caused by poor sanitation and hygiene. Although vaccines offer some hope of improvement on the health front, their efficacy is significantly improved where programmes are undertaken in conjunction with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene. Neither can vaccines alone free women and girls from the time and physical burden of collecting water or from the safety risks posed by lack of sanitation.

I wish briefly to discuss an opportunity the Government have to make such an intervention: the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting taking place in Washington on 11 April. The Sanitation and Water for All partnership, of which the UK Government are a founding member, aims to bring about a step change in the performance of the WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—sector, acting as a catalyst to overcome key barriers and accelerate progress towards universal and sustainable access. It is a global partnership of Governments, donors, civil society and other development partners working together to co-ordinate high-level action, improve accountability and use scarce resources more effectively. The biennial high-level meeting presents a unique opportunity to increase political prioritisation, and to strengthen accountability and the commitment to strengthen the sector’s performance. I want to take this opportunity to press for the Secretary of State for International Development to represent the UK at this important meeting.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene in this important Adjournment debate, which she has successfully secured. In the recent past, have senior British Government Ministers attended similar meetings to the one she has encouraged the Secretary of State to attend this year? If they have attended such meetings, is there evidence to suggest that this has been useful, influential and for the good? Hon. Members in this evening’s debate would be interested to know that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The previous high-level meeting in 2012 was attended by the then International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and it would be greatly encouraging to see the same level of representation in April, signalling continued UK Government leadership on this issue. On that occasion, such senior Government representation was instrumental in other countries also sending senior Ministers, and that permitted real progress to be made. I also know that the Secretary of State and her team in the Department for International Development are strong advocates of this issue and of the rights of women as part of the development agenda. It would be hugely encouraging if she were able to attend.

This year, the UK Government are particularly well placed to drive improvements in the effectiveness of aid to the sector, as the Secretary of State for International Development is also co-chair of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. The first GPEDC ministerial meeting coincides with the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting, which provides a valuable opportunity for the UK Government to link the two initiatives and highlights the importance of effective development co-operation in the WASH sector.

I want to turn now to the issue of the post-2015 international development framework. The vision set out in 2000 as part of the millennium development goals included halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The millennium development goal on sanitation is the worst performing sector of all the MDGs, and is unlikely, at current rates of progress, to be met until the next century.

The best estimates show that at least 783 million people still lack clean water, although the true number may be far higher. Taking population growth into account and despite all the good work that has been done, there are almost as many people without access to sanitation worldwide as there were 20 years ago.

We are now faced with an opportunity to address the limited progress that has been made on water, sanitation and hygiene issues through the post 2015 millennium development goals, and I am hopeful that the Government will treat this opportunity with the significance that it deserves.

A key strength of the millennium development goals framework has been the provision of a tenable agenda that has established standards for international development co-operation. The post-2015 framework must continue those positive aspects of the MDGs while addressing their failures. We need to see an ambitious vision for international development once the MDG project comes to an end, which reflects the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene to the attainment of poverty eradication, increased equality, and sustainable human and economic development. For every pound invested in WASH there is an outturn of around £8 in increased productivity, so that is a wise investment of a resource from our limited aid budget.

The UK Government have a strong history of championing the aid effectiveness agenda, and we need to ensure that that is carried forward in the context of the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. Strong political leadership and increased sector investment are fundamental to accelerating progress towards universal access, but another important factor is the degree to which countries have developed the institutions and systems to organise and oversee the delivery of services. Increasing the effectiveness of aid is key to extending and sustaining services, particularly to poorer communities, and will be vital in achieving universal access.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the important work that is being done on WASH both inside Parliament and in a wider context. I am greatly pleased that the International Development (Gender Equality) Bill will soon receive Royal Assent. I commend the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for his efforts in bringing forward this important piece of legislation, and also the Secretary of State for International Development and her team for their support of the Bill. The Bill, which will place a duty on the Government to consider ways in which development and humanitarian funding will build gender equality in the countries receiving UK aid, is a massively significant and symbolic step in the fight for gender equality around the world, and I hope that it is one that other countries will choose to follow.

Let me mention the important and often life-saving work undertaken by charities such as WaterAid, Tearfund, Trocaire, Christian Aid and Oxfam. I was delighted to see that Team GB and NI rowers from Northern Ireland, Richard and Peter Chambers, recently visited Uganda with Tearfund to raise awareness of lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene. Those elite athletes found that the 3 km trek up a mountain, two hours each time, twice a day, was just as gruelling a task as rowing for gold, yet it is one that women and girls in many countries have to do each day before their real work begins.

In conclusion, I want to make four simple appeals this evening. First, I appeal again to the Secretary of State for International Development to attend the Sanitation and Water for All high-level meeting next month, as her attendance would be invaluable. Secondly, I encourage Government to do all in their power to ensure that the post-2015 goal framework includes a goal on universal access to basic water and sanitation services, including a specific target date of 2030. Thirdly, I ask the Government to ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene targets and indicators focus explicitly on reducing inequalities by targeting poor and disadvantaged people as a priority, recognising the disproportionate impact on women and girls and improving the sustainability of services to secure lasting benefits.

Fourthly, and finally, I ask all of us to pause for a moment on world water day, consider how different our lives would be without adequate access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and imagine how infinitely improved the lives of those in developing nations would be if we committed to playing our part in delivering the necessary infrastructure to make change for them a reality.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for calling this debate in the run-up to world water day and applaud her ongoing commitment to ensuring that poor people have access to clean water and sanitation. I also note her concern about the sustainable use of the world’s water resources. I congratulate her on securing this debate for the second consecutive year. The House will certainly know that she speaks with total good sense on the subject.

The world met the millennium development goal target on access to safe water in 2010. Over 2 billion more people had access to water in 2011 than did in 1990. That is good news, but it should not lead us to think that the job is done. Over 760 million people still lack access to clean water. However, as the hon. Lady said, there has been too little progress on access to sanitation. As I said in our debate last year, it is shocking that 1.1 billion people—16% of the global population—must defecate in the open.

Clean water and decent sanitation for the poorest are integral to development. Providing those basic services would avoid over 2 million child deaths each year. Children with access to clean water are much more likely to reach their fifth birthday and be better nourished than those who do not.

I know that the hon. Lady has particular concerns about women and girls, and she is right. It is women and girls who have to carry water to their homes, often from distant sources. It is women and girls who are put at risk of sexual and other violence because they do not have a toilet and must venture out after dark. That is why DFID ensures that women and girls have a central role in our water and sanitation programmes, something reinforced by the success of the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

For all those reasons, the coalition Government are committed to reaching 60 million people with sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene—WASH—services by the end of 2015. The UK will meet its commitments mainly through programmes developed and managed by our offices in countries in Africa and Asia. We currently have sanitation and water programmes in 17 such countries. We have increased some of those programmes and are on track to achieve additional results in Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Last month I visited the rural water and sanitation programme near Pokhara in the rural hills of Nepal. The programme provides water and sanitation to local people, including the families of ex-Gurkhas, and does so at real value. I saw at first hand how a village’s water supply has been transformed by the installation of taps and latrines in every one of its 49 homes, and all for less than the cost of a car. It is a transformational intervention that, exactly as we have been discussing tonight, stops women having to go down a steep hill to collect water and lug it up again for the most basic uses of that essential commodity. I was pleased to be able to announce additional support of £10 million for the programme over the next five years to ensure that the work can be continued and expanded. We also have a programme that will support new partnerships between non-governmental organisations and private companies such as Plan International and Unilever to deliver WASH programmes. We have a strong track record. An analysis of DFID’s WASH programmes shows that UK aid is targeted at the poorest, as the hon. Lady requested, and is good value for money. However, we are not resting on our laurels. For example, we are researching how we can improve the implementation of our WASH programmes in six countries, including Nigeria and Mozambique.

The next high-level meeting of the Sanitation and Water for All initiative is, as was mentioned, on 11 April. The UK will be represented by a DFID Minister—in all likelihood, at the moment, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) but, if the diary permits, possibly the Secretary of State herself. We will use this meeting to focus on the commitments that were made at the 2012 high-level meeting.

UK support is not just for water and sanitation services. We also support country, regional and global programmes to increase water security. These programmes address the wider issue of ensuring that water is available for food and energy production. They also help countries to reduce the impact of floods and droughts. We know from events this year here in the UK how crucial this is. For poor countries, the impact is huge. The 2010 floods in Pakistan caused loss and damage of about $10 billion and put its economy into reverse. Nor does water respect political boundaries. That is why DFID invests in programmes to support the better management of rivers such as the Nile that are shared by two or more countries. For instance, our funding in southern Africa will help to protect 9 million people from flooding.

Water management is essential for an economy to be successful. At Davos this year, the global business community identified threats to water supply as one of the top four risks facing their businesses. DFID supports innovative work to form partnerships between the public and private sectors to tackle shared water resource risks and to benefit poor people. The need for solid evidence to back investment decisions is essential. DFID’s research funding therefore includes a programme called Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity. This ground-breaking programme has developed robust evidence on how sanitation can be improved most effectively. The Department also works with the Gates Foundation to test new ways of providing sanitation services to poor people in urban areas.

The UK Government strongly endorse the recommendations of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development framework, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister chaired. Its report proposed ambitious targets for water and sanitation services, and for water efficiency and waste water treatment. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that water and sanitation, including water resource management, feature prominently in the post-2015 framework. To that end, we will make sure that what we do achieves the greatest impact. We will keep refining our aid programmes. We will share our knowledge with our partners so that together we can all do more.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.