Staying focused on the world’s most valuable resource

November 05, 2014


November 05, 2014

Barbara Frost

Chief executive

Barbara Frost has been in her current role since 2005. She led on the development of the Global strategy that promotes WaterAid’s vision and values and its four Aims which link the work of all WaterAid Members - the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and Sweden - and also played a pivotal role in creating WaterAid international.  Prior to joining WaterAid, Barbara was Chief Executive of Action on Disability and Development – and worked for international NGOs ActionAid, Save the Children and Oxfam Australia. In her early career Barbara worked in Australia with the Federal and State governments, as well as with the voluntary and community sector, before moving to Africa and then back to the UK.

The world is facing a water and sanitation crisis, with 2.5bn people on our planet lacking access to a basic toilet. The global health and economic costs are huge. However, the crisis can be addressed, and there is an important and growing role for private enterprise, argues Barbara Frost, Chief Executive of WaterAid, an international non-profit organisation.

There is perhaps no other resource in the world at once so valuable and so taken for granted as water.

The seas are rising, the planet’s population is growing, and demand for food and resources has never been greater. Growing middle classes and a rising group of super-wealthy mean the world is consuming everything, from meat to smartphones, at ever-greater speed.

In turn, demand for water—part of nearly every production process—is growing fast and providing enough water is becoming increasingly challenging.

Though we hear much about the scarcity of water, the planet has enough water to meet humankind's basic needs, that is, for drinking and keeping clean and healthy. It is critical that water is managed carefully, and that basic needs are prioritised.

The importance of good sanitation

You cannot have clean, safe water or a healthy population without good sanitation and good hygiene practices. The World Health Organization estimates that poor sanitation and water supply cost the world US$260bn each year (or 1.5% of countries' GDP on average). Moreover, 2.5bn people on our planet lack access to a basic toilet, according to the UN.

This has never been more apparent than in the present Ebola crisis in West Africa, which has wrought a devastating toll on Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Doctors and nurses never stood a chance of containing this catastrophic virus, spread through contact with body fluids including vomit and diarrhoea, when their hospitals and clinics did not even have running water and basic toilets.

The world has awoken to the crisis, but simply treating the ill and containing the spread will not be enough. Once the situation allows, the affected countries must be helped to build clean water and sanitation systems that work reliably in the long term, or they will remain at risk of another health crisis.

Beyond the devastation of Ebola, many other illnesses thrive in places without safe water, basic sanitation and good hygiene practices. Cholera outbreaks—unheard of in the UK since the introduction of sanitation systems in the 19th century—still occur regularly in much of the developing world. Typhoid fever, intestinal worms and the blinding eye infection, trachoma, all flourish in the absence of safe water and toilets. Even polio vaccination is less effective when children are suffering from chronic diarrhoea, often caused by dirty water. Nearly 1,400 children under five die every day of preventable diarrhoeal illness.

This crisis can be addressed. For example, Singapore and South Korea began national education campaigns on cleanliness alongside massive planning, funding and building programmes for sanitation in the 1960s, when their GDP per capita were similar to many sub-Saharan African states. By 1990, according to the World Health Organisation/UNICEF water supply and sanitation monitoring programme, both countries had achieved nearly universal drinking water and sanitation coverage.

Growing role for the private sector

There is an important and growing role for private enterprise to address the water and sanitation crisis and alleviate poverty, through funding, collaboration, and supporting domestic economies with investment. In exchange, corporations gain access to new markets, benefit from increased productivity and economic growth, and are better able to manage the risks that can come with operating in emerging markets.

The timing is crucial. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has warned that nearly half the global population will face water scarcity by 2030, with demand outstripping supply by 40%.

Corporations working in these water-scarce countries will feel the resulting strain of slowed development, poor health of their workforces, and increased tension in conflict-prone regions.

It is in everyone's interest to address the water and sanitation crisis. We have seen how great the costs are when we do not.

Barbara Frost is one of the speakers at The Economist Event's World Water Summit.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

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