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Sub-Saharan Africa: Water and Sanitation

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase their support for water and sanitation programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing on my name in the Order Paper and draw attention to my entry in the register of interests.

My Lords, water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for preventing the spread of Covid-19. We continue to support WASH projects throughout Africa. Our country teams are responding through health and humanitarian programmes, with water and sanitation being a key area. We have provided more funding to UNICEF, the lead UN agency for water supply and sanitation, to help with the response. We have launched a new partnership with Unilever, which is working in Africa to scale up Covid-specific messaging on hygiene.

With the impact of Covid-19 and the stress on water supplies from the climate emergency, I know the Minister recognises, as she acknowledged, that clean water and sanitation are more vital than ever, especially when aid budgets are squeezed. Water Unite, which I chair, collects a 1% levy on the sale of bottled water to invest in water and sanitation projects. Will the Government encourage this and other innovative ways of unlocking millions of pounds for development funds to add to taxpayer-funded donor contributions? Will she consider meeting me to explore this further?

I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. We have discussed that excellent initiative in the past and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further. As he says, water, sanitation and hygiene are incredibly important and the first line of defence for preventing the spread of Covid. DfID will continue to support WASH, as we know it is critical for managing the Covid recovery.

My Lords, handwashing is one of the most effective disease prevention methods available, including specifically for Covid-19, yet 3 billion people globally do not have handwashing facilities at home. As part of DfID’s monitoring of Covid-19 cases in developing countries, do the Government intend to increase support for sanitation programmes in areas that are experiencing a high number of cases?

My Lords, as the noble Lord says, hygiene relies on access to adequate quantities of clean water, and that applies to both handwashing and surface hygiene. We will absolutely continue to support WASH projects. We need to make progress on sanitation, and progress to ensure that sufficient clean water is available for people to be able to keep safe.

Can the Minister be absolutely clear: will we be spending more on this in sub-Saharan Africa in the next 12 months?

My Lords, I fear I am not in a position to answer that question. As the noble Lord will be aware, DfID funds a vast number of projects to tackle Covid. As I said, WASH projects will absolutely continue to be a key priority for DfID as we move forward.

My Lords, I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, is not asking his question, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.

My Lords, in Africa, the WASH sector is critical for both containing the virus and lowering its devastating impact on human and economic costs. Can the Minister say what conversations DfID has had with the CDC about using its heft to leverage investment into both WASH, infrastructure and products such as soap and sanitiser?

My Lords, obviously we work closely with CDC to ensure that it is responding sufficiently to Covid. CDC is urgently undertaking a Covid-19 impact and vulnerability assessment across its portfolio of investments in Africa and South Asia. As other investors withdraw, CDC is looking at extending the risk-sharing agreements it has with partner banks to ensure that it will continue to be able to support projects. I will certainly have a further discussion with it about how it can specifically support WASH projects.

My Lords, the recent outbreak of Covid has led to the biggest and most welcome extension of the WASH programme across Africa. How can we ensure that the investments made in water sanitation and hygiene by DfID look beyond Covid-19 and help to fight other diseases in the long term, such as neglected tropical diseases, and provide sustainable water and sanitation solutions for vulnerable populations going forward?

My Lords, my noble friend is of course quite right to point out that WASH is critical not only now as we deal with the immediate impacts of Covid-19 but for the future. That is why we are working closely with our partner Governments to ensure that the water systems in their countries continue to receive investment as countries around the world are challenged with the economic impact of Covid-19.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness assure the House that everything possible is being done to assist villagers in poorer countries such as Malawi, in sub-Saharan Africa? Access to clean water for washing hands is often very limited, as has been pointed out, and traditional medicine inhibits knowledge of symptoms and how to deal with them. The provision of well-judged education and sufficient hand sanitation could save many lives.

I certainly agree with the noble and learned Lord that we must make sure that the information provided to people is correct in order to help them save lives. I mentioned our project with Unilever, which aims to reach 1 billion people with the correct information about how best to protect themselves from Covid.

I congratulate the Government on the Gavi replenishment—a great example of international co-operation delivering on a vital health initiative. WASH is an important ingredient in delivering SDG 6, as well as our objective of universal health coverage. What are the noble Baroness, the Government and DfID doing to ensure that we lead and get other countries to invest in WASH projects?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing up Gavi, which was a great success last week, and which brought the world together to raise over £8.8 billion for essential vaccinations. As he says, improving access to water and sanitation is its own development goal; safe water and sanitation are critical to public health and are necessary elements of universal health coverage. It is also good value for money, and we encourage other donors and indeed the World Bank to continue investment. It estimates that for every £1 spent there are economic benefits worth over £4. Therefore, we target our aid well to vulnerable countries. Between 2011 and 2015, we helped 64.5 million people get access to water and sanitation. We will continue this work and continue to encourage other partners to invest.

I declare an interest, as my husband receives a grant for research on sustainable farming in Uganda. Almost 22 million people in Uganda do not have access to clean water. That is important for health but also for equality and education opportunities for girls in particular. How much funding have the Government allocated in the last year to address health and sanitation problems in that country?

I am afraid that I do not have the specific amount of funding for that country but I will write to the noble Baroness with that information. I completely agree that we must ensure that, as schools reopen, all pupils are able to return to school, and providing proper health, hygiene and clean running water will of course be important for that aim.

My Lords, negotiating a broad network of water PPP awards similar to that which has worked well in Gaza could be a strategy. However, I draw attention to the use of the term “sub-Sahara”, which many consider to have overtones from a bygone colonialist and racist era and so to have had its day. Would it therefore not be better to exercise our minds on Africa geostrategically, to include north Africa and the Maghreb?

I thank the noble Viscount for that question. While examples of donating water supply or treatment equipment have been successful in some cases, our programmes overall focus increasingly on more systems-strengthening and climate resilience, as they are part of our work on ending preventable deaths. I recognise that both “Africa” and “sub-Saharan Africa” are used as shorthand for a continent that is incredibly diverse in people, cultures and contexts, and our work is designed in collaboration with countries and partners to respond to that diversity.

My Lords, there is a practical and reliable solution. For the last 12 years, the charity Innovation: Africa has enabled remote villages to harness the power of the sun using Israeli solar and water technology. The solar panels power the pump, which is placed in the aquifer below ground. The clean water is then pumped into a tank and taps are installed throughout the village, providing up to 10,000 people with clean water from one system at a cost of about £40,000 per system. Thanks to Innovation: Africa, 1.7 million people in remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa have clean running water. Would the Minister agree to meet with Innovation: Africa to explore ways in which her department can help ensure that clean, fresh water can be delivered to the millions in desperate need?

My noble friend highlights one of the ways in which we are helping people in rural villages, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked about earlier. I understand that Innovation: Africa works closely with UNICEF, one of our key partners in WASH. Its use of innovative technology is particularly encouraging, especially as it uses green energy to power it. To achieve our ambitious SDG 6 WASH targets will require a major increase of resources and capacity. To use those effectively we must make the most of domestic funding, contributions from households and attract new finance. The WASH team at DfID will be happy to meet with Innovation: Africa, and I will follow that up with my noble friend.