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Investment in water and sanitation yields health and economic benefits

Two new reports call attention to economic benefits and practical means of achieving Millennium Development Goals' sanitation target

An estimated 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation facilities, while 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.1 By 2015, countries across the world have pledged to provide another 1.5 billion people with access to improved drinking water, and another 1.9 billion people with access to basic sanitation facilities.2

Now, the Swiss Tropical Institute, in a report commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO), has outlined the significant economic benefits to the world, and particularly to developing countries, if the Millennium Development (MDG) and World Summit on Sustainable Development goals are met.

In the report, “Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level”, launched today at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, it is estimated that an additional investment of around US$ 11.3 billion per year over and above current investments could result in a total economic benefit of US$ 84 billion annually.

The economic benefits would range from US$ 3 to US$ 34 per US$ 1 invested, depending on the region. Additional reductions in exposure to contaminated drinking-water, such as through household-level disinfection, would lead to an overall benefit ranging from US$ 5 to US$ 60 per US$ 1 invested, the report estimates.

People with access to safer, cleaner and healthier water and sanitation facilities would become sick less often. They would also be able to lead more productive lives. This analysis estimates, for example, that in making the above investments, the global incidence of diarrhoeal disease would decrease by 10% on average. Time savings associated with having more conveniently located water and sanitation facilities were valued at the minimum hourly wage rate for each country.

“This is excellent news and we welcome the report’s findings,” said Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments. “In the health field, we have always been aware of the key importance of proper water and sanitation and services. Now, this clear demonstration of the economic benefits from investing in water and sanitation supply should encourage our partners beyond the health sector to step up these investments.”3

WHO estimates that, today, 1.6 million people per year die due to unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation; other water-associated diseases, in particular malaria and filariasis also present heavy burdens, with more than one million deaths due to malaria alone.

In a second new report, “The Sanitation Challenge: Turning Commitment into Reality”, WHO outlines 11 key areas in which action can lead towards substantive increases in sanitation coverage and, consequently, progress towards the MDGs and World Summit on Sustainable Development targets. These include increasing political commitment, enacting legislation, increasing financial resources, working with small-scale entrepreneurs, and working with women’s organizations. The report highlights numerous cases in these and other areas where action has been successful in improving provision of sanitation facilities.

In Bangladesh, for example, the nongovernmental organization Village Education and Resource Centre (VERC) has worked with villages to develop a whole range of new approaches to solving sanitation problems, including the development of more than 20 new models for low-cost latrines. VERC’s approach unlocks communities’ ability to solve a problem for themselves. Another example is the new draft national Constitution of Kenya, which now contains a defined right to sanitation: “everyone has a right to a reasonable standard of sanitation”.

“We know what works; this report contains ample evidence of that. If we accelerate the pace and are strategic in our interventions, the world can create a movement which will provide an additional 1.9 billion people with access to basic sanitation by 2015 and another 2.4 billion by 2025. And only then would we have achieved global sanitation coverage,” added Dr Leitner.

The reports will be launched at a press briefing scheduled for 11:00 a.m., 27 April, at the United Nations Press Centre in New York.


Related links

1Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 report - World Health Organization, Geneva/United Nations Children’s Fund, New York.

2 Millennium Development Goal Number 7, agreed at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, sets the target of halving the proportion of people without access to an improved source of drinking water by 2015, while the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 added the target of halving the proportion of people without access to adequate sanitation also by 2015. An improved drinking water source is any type of water supply facility – from a protected well through to indoor-piped water – which is likely to provide sufficient quantities of safe water to a community or individual.

3For example, the 2001 Report of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health recognized that health was an investment critical for economic development. WHO's follow-up Macroeconomics and Health work has been calling for more budgetary resources and political commitment for public and environmental health.

For more information contact:

Mr Gregory Hartl
Telephone: +41 (22) 791 4458
Mobile phone: +41 (79) 203 6715