By Cheryl Hicks, Senior Advisor at WASH4Work, business action on water, sanitation and hygiene
Almost all liquid freshwater in the world is hidden from plain sight, underground. As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. What do we really know about the quantity and quality of our main source of drinking water? How are we protecting it from pollution and over-use? This World Water Day, all eyes are on groundwater.
In fact, according to UN Water, groundwater is often over-used in many areas, where more water is abstracted from aquifers than is recharged by rain and snow. And as much as this source is buried under our feet, so is its pollution. Contaminated groundwater and its impacts on human health are at the root cause of global action on lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for over half of the world’s population. But the reverse is also true: safely managed WASH is a key solution for polluted aquifers.
Out of sight, out of mind
Groundwater pollution is a particular problem from which it can take decades or even centuries to recover. The potential threats to the quality of groundwater are natural (geogenic) contamination and contaminant sources from land use and other human activities (anthropogenic contamination). The impact people can have on groundwater sources through lack of faecal waste treatment and open defecation is contamination of both drinking water sources and the wider environment. Currently, 80% of wastewater is disposed of directly without proper treatment (WaterAid, 2022).
Pathogens in water contaminated with faeces cause diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, and typhoid. Unsafe water and sanitation also put a huge economic burden on countries that can least afford it in the form of higher health costs and lost productivity and wages.
Here are some facts to consider:
- Over 800,000 people, including children, are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation and hand hygiene (WHO, 2022).
- An estimated US$ 114 billion in annual investment is needed to achieve the SDG WASH targets 6.1 and 6.2 (World Bank 2018) universal access to safely managed water and sanitation.
An eye-opening experience
In 2015, as part of a private sector initiative, I set out on a global tour of the world’s most vulnerable regions where millions of people were underserved with reliable access to safe water and sanitation. I sought to understand the scope of the challenges and to meet the businesses and innovators who were activating new solutions.
In my research for the initiative, I came across a simple and compelling explanation for the root of the problem. Millions of children in these regions were dying from diarrheal and other water borne diseases due to the contamination of the water sources where these populations were sourcing their drinking water, including groundwater sources. The water was being contaminated with raw sewage flowing directly into freshwater sources and seeping into the groundwater due to a lack of access to safely managed sanitation services and toilets.
We visited cities and communities where waterways were black due to contamination from human waste, where water treatment plants were emptying treated water back into polluted waterways, where open defecation was preferred to using a toilet because of the poor state of available community toilets, and where families drank that water contaminated with human waste. Some of the untreated human waste is in unlined pit latrines that contaminates groundwater around people’s homes. Some is collected manually or by trucks and dumped into nearby fields or bodies of water. Some is collected in sewers but doesn’t get treated.
To address the problem of groundwater contamination, increase water quality, and increase the quantity of freshwater available and accessible to sustain human health, we need to fix the problem of WASH access and the treatment of human waste.
The glaring opportunity
Since that eye-opening global tour, extensive work with businesses leading on WASH action and expert stakeholders, we concluded that the role that the private sector could play is threefold:
- Take action to invest in ensuring access to safely managed WASH across business operations, supply chains, and communities where employees live;
- Support the scale up of new technologies and new business models enabling greater efficiency, affordability and reliability of WASH services; and
- Work with expert WASH stakeholders and the public sector to continuously improve WASH infrastructure to enable sustainability and resilience.
WASH4Work is a multi-stakeholder initiative launched in 2016 to mobilise business action on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in workplace operations, in communities where companies operate, and across supply chains.
The initiative is a coalition of 20 global corporate leaders and over 300 WASH Pledge signatories that have made commitments to business action on WASH. This effort is already reaching millions of employees, workers, and communities. It is supported by 14 WASH expert organisations listed here: www.wash4work.org.
COVID-19 has brought to the forefront the key risks to business continuity from the lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). This, in turn, has spurred new momentum for business action on WASH not only for companies’ own operations, but also for those left most vulnerable in supply chains and communities. For a long time, corporate actions on WASH have been siloed, outside of companies’ broader commitments to water security and stewardship. But over the last 5 years, leading companies have seen the benefits of taking an integrated approach. Companies are starting to recognise the direct and indirect business benefits from investing in WASH; COVID-19 has reinforced that understanding, accelerating the trend for business action on WASH (WASH4Work 2021):
- Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) has become a key priority in corporate water stewardship strategies to ensure broader water security and unlock multiple co-benefits for business and communities.
- The WASH4WORK initiative has collated business guidance tools to measure the benefits of taking action on WASH, strengthening the business case for prioritising WASH in corporate water stewardship strategies.
- In 2021 WASH4Work developed a WASH engagement journey, a pathway to highlight WASH actions businesses can take on the road to WASH Resilience:
- Understanding the business case for investing in WASH;
- Taking the WASH Pledge to create WASH implementation action plans;
- Applying business expertise and innovation to WASH;
- Collective action on WASH; and
- Aligning with best-in-class standards, reporting and disclosure of WASH actions and impacts.
- The next agenda for corporate water stewardship includes climate-resilient WASH. Choices of WASH infrastructure matter to ensure they will stand up to broader climate change and health risks.
Bringing WASH and groundwater into view
Contaminated groundwater and its impacts on human health are at the root cause of lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for over half of the world’s population.
On 22 March the world observes World Water Day to raise awareness of the 2 billion people currently living without access to safe water. The day also inspires action on the current challenges we collectively face to protect and steward our scarce freshwater resources, which will increasingly be at risk due to climate change. This year, the World Water Day theme is focused on groundwater. (UN Water).
The private sector has a key role to play, working in partnership with experts and communities, to leverage best in class expertise on water, sanitation and hygiene, new technologies and innovation, and full systems thinking.
Ensuring WASH access can protect groundwater from pollution and build resilience for groundwater’s vital role in water and sanitation systems, agriculture, industry, natural ecosystems, and climate change adaptation.