For a lack of soap and clean water, disease flourishes

May 13, 2020


The coroanavirus COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the world in unprecedented ways, from the enormous health challenges to a dramatic slowdown in the global economy, which is jeopardizing the welfare, food and economic security of tens of millions of people.   

Governments are taking aggressive steps to contain and control the spread of the virus through social distancing, testing, and contract tracing. It is well established that a major vector for transmission is human to human contact as well as human contact with infected surfaces. A critical element of a successful virus containment must include frequent hand washing with soap and water.

Based on the latest estimates by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, three billion people don’t have soap and water at home, 900 million children don’t have soap and water at school, and 40 percent of health care facilities were not equipped to practice hand hygiene. There are also large inequalities between and within countries with some populations having extremely low coverage of this basic, and vital amenity. More than 400 million people in rural India have limited household hygiene facilities while 40 million people in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo have no hygiene facilities at all; 100 percent of rural Gambians have no household hygiene facilities. Globally, 36 percent of schools have no hygiene services; in Yemen, it’s 84 percent.

Even before COVID-19, these gaps in access to hygiene services and safely managed drinking water and sanitation services were causing massive harm to people’s health, education, and economic opportunities in many of the world’s developing nations. The lack leads to increased incidences of water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhea which killed 829,000 people in 2016. Diseases like these also keep millions of children out of school and diminish women’s opportunities to create new economic enterprises. Overall, it’s estimated that even before COVID-19, inadequate hand hygiene resulted in nearly 300,000 deaths annually, with the majority of deaths being among children younger than five.

The critical importance of safe water, sanitation and hygiene to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development was recognized in UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 6.1 and 6.2:

  • 6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all;
  • 6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

Even before COVID-19, the World Health Organization estimated that universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene would reduce the global disease burden by about 10 percent. In urban areas, for every US$1 invested in basic sanitation, the return in saved medical costs and increased productivity is $2.5 while in rural areas, each $1invested returns on average more than $5.

UNDP, through programmes such as GoAL-WaSH and its Climate Change Adaptation portfolio, plays an active role in helping countries improve access to safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene. GoAL-WaSH supported the post-conflict government in Liberia to set up a national regulatory body for the water supply and sanitation sectors. In the Maldives, a project financed by the Green Climate Fund will bring safe drinking water to more than 100,000 people across 49 of the Outer Islands.

In recognition of the critical importance of handwashing both to prevent COVID-19, and to reduce the global burden of death, disease and lost socioeconomic opportunity towards achieving SDGs 6.1 and 6.2, the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership has issued a “Leadership Call to Action” calling upon leaders everywhere to provide water, sanitation and hygiene to all without discrimination, ensure that systems supporting them are resilient, and above all provide the financing to do this in a sustainable way.

The Leadership Call to Action has been signed by heads of state, the presidents of regional development banks, heads of international NGOs, CEOs of companies such as Unilever and SUEZ, as well as the heads of many UN agencies, including UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.

Tangible follow-up on the Call to Action will not only play a major role in containing COVID-19 and possible future pandemics, but, by bringing safe water, sanitation and hygiene to communities and schools around the world, could help catalyze a measurable leap in sustainable human development and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda.