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50 Years and Billions Spent: New Reporting Shows Universal Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Draws Closer to Epic Goal Despite Global Pandemic

The Wilson Center, in partnership with Circle of Blue and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, hosted a special session featuring groundbreaking reporting on one of the most stubborn challenges in human history—universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Date & Time

May. 11, 2021
9:00am – 11:00am ET


The Wilson Center, in partnership with Circle of Blue and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, hosted a special session with Ambassador Mark Green featuring groundbreaking reporting on one of the most stubborn challenges in human history—universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Over the last half century a global galaxy of projects, programs, banks, philanthropies, government departments, idea centers, utilities, service companies, research groups, and consultancies devoted itself to one objective—providing every person on Earth clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. In 2020, many of the sector’s leaders worried that the Covid-19 pandemic would sidetrack investment and slow progress. But while the signs of a potential catastrophe were apparent, the actual effects of the pandemic in delivering water and sanitation to people who needed it were not nearly as dire as anticipated.

Decades of frontline experience provided the WASH sector keen understanding of the various components of their ecosystem—finance, governance, installation, management, operations, oversight—and how each influenced the other. In essence, the WASH community developed a set of approaches that simplified the complexity of what they were after. Achieving universal access to clean water and hygiene is reachable by 2030. Universal access to sanitation could come by mid-century.

These are some of the salient findings of WASH Within Reach, a project undertaken by the Wilson Center and Circle of Blue to investigate WASH services, financing, and resiliency. In interviews with over 40 authorities on five continents, and months of research, the Wilson Center and Circle of Blue unraveled the complexity of a global sector that now spends over $20 billion a year and is on its way to achieving one of the great breakthroughs in human well-being.

Continue the conversation on Twitter @NewSecurityBeat and join in using the hashtag #WASHWithinReachFind related coverage of these issues on our blog,

Selected Quotes

Ambassador Mark Green 

“Achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene is one of humanity’s biggest aspirational goals […] globally, at least 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. 2 billion people lack basic sanitation services, and 3 billion still lack a basic hand washing facility at home, one that uses soap and water.”

“Over the last 50 years, a dedicated network of government agencies, nonprofits, multilateral entities, private organizations, and academic institutions have invested more than $400 billion to improve WASH services for countless people in need around the developing world.”

“When COVID-19 took hold of the world last year, there were real concerns about the sustainability of financing and servicing of WASH, especially for those developing countries. Today, as COVID-19 continues to devastate communities around the world, taking stock of where WASH systems are resilient to the pandemic can help provide some important insights for future investments in innovation, and I hope give shape to new partnerships.” 

Maura Barry 

“Current estimates tell us that by 2040–10 years after the SDG deadline—we’re still going to have more than 100 countries that haven’t yet reached universal access to basic sanitation. And as many as 750 million people likely still won’t have access to a decent toilet, one that they don’t have to share with others outside of their house, and one that is durable. When it comes to hygiene, prior to the global pandemic, some 3 billion people lacked a place to wash their hands, and then during the pandemic all of a sudden the whole world was paying attention to hand washing.” 

“The COVID pandemic has increased cost and reduced revenue for service providers and has really shown the weakness and vulnerabilities of the WASH systems. And the ongoing climate crisis is only going to increase the challenges that the entire global community will face. And we know that 90% of disasters arising from climate change are related to water, like drought, flood, water contamination.” 

"We need to work together to build on incremental progress made on basic water and sanitation and bend the curve, bend it way, way up towards a higher level of safe and equitable access for all and ensure that water resources are sustainable. I think the good news is that if we can close the gap from basic access to safe universal access, then we can attain the greatest returns for human health, for job creation, economic growth, for women's empowerment, and for tackling the climate crisis."

Keith Schneider

“What I found was that WASH has been a whole lot more successful than the key players have acknowledged over the last 20 or 30 years. I also found that the UN was the most critical, the most pessimistic, about WASH’s success, and in fact 4 days before World Water Day this year, Volkan Bozkir […] said ‘the fact is, we are nowhere near achieving the goals that we have set out for WASH,” and I don’t think that’s accurate, in fact I think that’s wrong.”

“The UN now says that 673 million people practice open defecation, well that’s half the number that practiced open defecation at the start of the century. And I think that this tension between whether the sector is successful or unsuccessful may be a marketing piece in order to encourage more funding and more attention to it, but I think that the sector is achieving the kinds of success that hasn’t been recognized to date.”

“If you look at what’s happening in Vietnam, places like Bolivia, places like Peru, that’s clearly the case […] The last frontier is Africa, people involved in this sector know it’s Africa […] My assessment as a journalist, coming at this completely fresh, not knowing the scale, size and importance of it, is that 2040 is an achievable goal in Africa for universal access.”

“We need more journalists covering this […] We can do that kind of work to help elevate this progress. It is progressing. Why did Southeast Asia—Vietnam in particular—go from 50% basic water to 84%? How did that happen in 17 years? How’s it happened in Peru? That’s an amazing story, and those are the kinds of stories I think we should tell within this sector.”

Tanvi Nagpal

“What these incredible social enterprises have done is to develop models that are financially, environmentally sustainable. They've shown us ways in which you can reach the hardest to reach, whether they are in urban slums or in remote rural areas. In order for those models, those methods, those strategies to really have an impact, they will have to be integrated somehow into service delivery systems that are managed by governments. I think, probably, the next frontier is trying to figure out how we make that happen.”

“Everybody in the health sector and the water sector understands that water is a component of nutrition, water is really important to health, it’s about dignity, it’s about safety […] When we sit down together and we look around the room it’s all WASH people. It’s not every sector [...] I do think we have to become much more intentional and much smarter when we talk about partnerships that are mutually beneficial.”

“There’s two things that I would like to put my weight behind: one is the creation of very transparent and co-created partnerships that are strong… and the second would be to really double down on being able to defend how we know what we know and to be able to share that in ways that people understand.”

Duncan McNicholl

“[The pipe scheme breaking down] is very much the problem that Uptime is focused on. It’s in the rural areas, it’s the maintenance, the reliability of the infrastructure—so not just, is there access?, but does that service work reliably? and then from that, can it be sustainable? so that we’re really leaving no one behind in even rural and remote areas.”

“What we asked was, “How might we develop a funding mechanism that is targeted, transparent, and data-driven, and ultimately scalable—and do so in a way that allows the service to continue while also motivating higher levels of financial and operational performance over time?” And what we did was develop a results-based contract design… so the idea is the service providers do the work, and based on their performance, they would be eligible for a non-repayable grant.”

“What we really need to do to further that [partner] engagement is be able to demonstrate results over a longer period and at progressively bigger scales… We need to get beyond the pilot stage, even if it’s really interesting work.”

Sheila Kibuthu

“What Sanergy is doing is being able to then repurpose all of this [sanitation] waste and make sure that we are creating value from that waste and manufacturing quality and valuable products that then come back to the community to address other challenges such as food security.”

“Our model touches on almost all [sectors]. We work with farmers, we work with health practitioners, and so what we have really been working on—seeing that government especially has been our key stakeholder—is that we’ve been able to bring all of these stakeholders together [...] and [show] them the interlinkages between sanitation and waste management, sanitation and agriculture, sanitation and climate resilience. Being able to bring all of these stakeholders together and really showing that sanitation is interlinked to all of this has then helped us build stronger policies that then enable sanitation to thrive and also other sectors to be able to see the importance of building partnerships with us.”

“The key takeaway for me has been active participation—making sure that as we take stock of everything we have achieved so far, it’s knowing that we all have a role to play to be able to advance this even further. Working together is what it takes… from the community level, to the government level, to the funding level, to the private stakeholders level… Keeping the conversation going and having an active participation of everyone I think would help us maintain the momentum.”

Joel Kolker

“I think we have a lot of work to do. I think that work definitely needs to be focused at the country and sub-national level. Water, unlike the power sector, tends to be a local service provision, and in the various tiers of government, sub-national governments tend to have the biggest challenges—water is very indicative of that, sanitation even more so. But it’s clearly doable… all of this is doable. The good news is we know what to do. There’s not much we don’t know in terms of solving the problem.”

“The emphasis, I cannot stress this enough, really needs to be at that local level. That’s where water is. That’s where we’ll make a difference.”

“We need to really focus on the foundational issues of technical and financial efficiency and the policy and institutional and regulatory framework. If you get that right, then you’re on the way.”

Peter Laugharn

“The good thing from my perspective about the WASH sector is that we know the basics. We know the basics of infrastructure, water delivery, governance. We don't for the most part need technological breakthroughs to deliver what we want to do. Instead—we need to look at solid data and closing data gaps. We need to look at inadequate models of sustainable water delivery. We need to look at unclear water governance. And how all of this results in unnecessary lack of safe water… The encouraging thing is that this not rocket science. The challenging thing is that it's really wrapped up in soft skills and in political commitments. I think we're getting smarter and smarter about that.”

“So, what is still needed? […] we have the technical capacity to propose solutions on this but I don't think we have, if you like, governance at a global scale. We don't have a global sense of responsibility for delivering on SDG 6. And I think that needs to be built up.”

“We need to build efficiency at each level of systems. And we know how to do that systemically, we just have to do it more thoroughly and more broadly. And we really have to think through, what are the soft skills? And what are the mutual commitments that hold those governance pieces together? I think when we've done all those things we have a very powerful case—we have a powerful investment case—and we can pull it off together.”

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