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Monday, October 2, 2023

Investments in hygiene, sanitation and water key to fighting COVID-19 (2)

Continued from Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Part 3: Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is a matter of prioritisation

The critical question during and after COVID-19 is – how can governments support the sector given the impact of COVID-19 on the tax base as many people and industries have been affected? Basically, the cake to be distributed has significantly been reduced. Indeed, the impacts of COVID-19 on most industries has had the effect of curtailing jobs and reducing growth among others.


The World Bank estimates that “East Asia and the Pacific will grow by a scant 0.5%. South Asia will contract by 2.7%, Sub-Saharan Africa by 2.8%, Middle East and North Africa by 4.2%, Europe and Central Asia by 4.7%, and Latin America by 7.2%.”

There is no silver bullet to resolving COVID-19 and the myriad small or big crises associated with it, including the aftershocks we are yet to see. For now, a good number of countries should take advantage of the fiscal space they have due to suspension of debt repayments to put their resources where it matters most – programmes which protect our health, create jobs and make their economies resilient. The financial burden could have been worse had some governments not received a reprieve on their debt obligations.

The World Bank and the G20 agreed to the debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) for low-income countries. As of 8 September, 43 countries were said to be participating in this initiative with the possibility of more countries joining. Unlike the previous debt initiative which cancelled and reduced the actual debt stock of many countries, this new initiative pushes the debt payment obligations forward.

This means these countries will not need to be servicing a considerable amount of their loans for some time, thereby gaining some amount of relief and fiscal space – hoping they don’t use this space to service loans from creditors who are not participating in the current initiative. Many commentators and debt campaigners would have preferred a total debt-write off which the initiative does not provide. For countries benefiting from the DSSI, how governments act to protect their revenues and manage this fiscal space will make the difference.

Colleagues at WaterAid and EndWater Poverty also offer some suggestions for increasing development finance during this time. Among others, they call for a transformation in public finance in order to maximise revenues, curtail pilferage and in turn prioritise the SDGs including the water, sanitation and hygiene targets every year. They recommend action on tax evasion, climate finance and new taxes on carbon emissions as critical to creating additional resources.

They also support the UN Secretary-General, UNCTAD and others who have called for a new allocation of IMF’s Special Drawing Rights to bolster developing countries’ foreign exchange reserves, stimulate economies and release funds for spending on health and public services.

Nearly 100 global leaders, including 14 Heads of States and Governments have called for serious attention to hygiene, water and sanitation during and after COVID-19. As part of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, they support mobilisation and adequate investment in these three issues as fundamental pillars for a healthy population which is critical for growth. In addition, the World Bank and G20 recommend more spending in social, health and economic sectors.

Will governments only invest in economic programs which do not help to insulate their economies from a future public health pandemic? Or will they invest in economic initiatives which simultaneously propel growth, support a healthy society and do not exacerbate the climate crisis? Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene services at scale promises to deliver on those three fronts. It is social spending with multiple benefits. 

Part 4: Opportunities for all stakeholders, led by governments, to find joint solutions and bend the arc of history

As austerity will be the path taken by most governments, there is a high risk that governments will demote investments in the primary factors that can help to cut the pathways of diseases including COVID-19. Taking money away from water, sanitation, and hygiene is akin to taking away firetrucks when the fire is still raging. When a grocery is burning, it is folly to take away money from the fire department in order to restock the grocery.

In the face of this pandemic, it is important that governments do not take away money from the very first and primary line of defense- water, sanitation, and hygiene- to other sectors.  Already, during COVID-19, some countries cut allocations to the water and sanitation sector. A few have either maintained or increased allocations to hygiene services.

But hygiene, water and sanitation are complementary. One is not very effective without the others. Investing only in hygiene is like building a house without a roof or buying toothpaste without a toothbrush. Economies can ill afford deprioritised spending in water, sanitation and hygiene. If there are issues whose resources should be protected, ring-fenced and complemented during this crisis, water, sanitation, hygiene and health must be top of that list. 

The Sanitation and Water for All  partnership has identified  investing in water, sanitation and hygiene as a paramount goal which is critical to achieving several targets at once during the current and future pandemics. The partnership has engaged ministers responsible for water, sanitation and hygiene in extremely important discussions to ensure they have the right information to make the right decisions and invest in these issues during COVID19. But these ministers on their own cannot bend the arc of history towards a more equitable society where there is water, sanitation, and hygiene for everyone, always, and everywhere.

To complement their efforts, the partnership is working with global and regional organisations including the World Bank, UNICEF, Asia, Africa and Inter-American Development Banks, and the African Ministers Council on Water, to organise meetings for ministers of finance and their counterparts in health, water, sanitation and hygiene.

Between November and December 2020, SWA will hold three virtual Regional Finance Ministers’ Meetings for Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. Ministers will discuss very practical solutions to ensure they are making smart investments in a time of constricted budgets and austerity. They will look at real examples where the economic opportunities offered by investing in water, sanitation and hygiene are maximised.  Some of the  examples will be drawn from a handbook for finance Ministers which was launched at the beginning of September 2020.

The handbook– Water & Sanitation: How to Make Public Investment Work – A Handbook for Finance Ministers – gives practical financing approaches to achieve the water, sanitation and hygiene targets of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It demonstrates how to deliver greater efficiencies in the sector and remove obstacles to securing finance for costs of service delivery, expansion, quality improvement, or asset rehabilitation. Ministers can use the handbook to overcome these inherently political challenges which require both sector minister and finance ministers to work together.

The SWA Secretariat is currently working with partners to use both the handbook and the upcoming meetings to secure concrete ministerial support for water, hygiene and sanitation during and after COVID19. SWA partners are also being engaged and are expected to demonstrate their support by making and following through on commitments to achieving strong systems and financing for water, sanitation and hygiene.  SWA works with a mutual accountability mechanism which places emphasis on actions of governments and all other partners because no one institution can bend the arc of history towards more equitable services for all.

Governments and their partners must invest in water, sanitation and hygiene as if our lives depend on them, because, well, they do!


By Muyatwa Sitali, Head of Country Engagement, Sanitation and Water for All

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