We can be a force for change by strengthening investment and policy that integrates water, sanitation and hygiene across all development priorities.

Water is arguably Canada’s most precious natural asset and central to our identity as a nation. We have one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, and we rely heavily on water for energy, tourism, trade, recreation and fishing. While so many of us may take this valuable resource for granted, hundreds of millions of people around the world are deprived of the basic human right of access to water.

Last year, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Global Goal #6 commits the global community to providing everyone, everywhere with access to water and sanitation by 2030, leaving no one behind. With nearly 2.4 billion people still without basic toilets and more than 650 million without access to clean water, there is still much work to be done.

In the first report on progress on the Global Goals, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that one in eight people around the world still lives in extreme poverty. He also raised the alarm that a growing number of countries are confronting water stress, affecting more than two billion people worldwide.

Ending extreme poverty and building a healthier, fairer and more productive world for everyone, everywhere—particularly women and girls—can only be realized when safe water, sanitation and hygiene are available to all.

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for the rights of girls. Access to water frees girls of the tedious and often dangerous burden of travelling long distances to fetch water for their families. Or what about the more than one billion women and girls who do not have access to a clean, private toilet? Without a private and safe place to go to the toilet, girls find it very hard to stay in school, and many stay at home when menstruating. Missing classes causes girls to fall behind in school, often past the point of being able to catch up, leading them to drop out altogether. Canada has an opportunity to build on its leadership in maternal newborn and child health and reverse the cycle of disempowerment by upholding the rights of women and girls.

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for health. They prevent infection and the spread of disease, protecting health care staff and patients and upholding the dignity of vulnerable populations. Some 315,000 children die each year from diarrheal illnesses linked to dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. The lack of clean water and toilets is also a major contributor to malnutrition. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 per cent of undernutrition—a major form of malnutrition—is associated with infections caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic practices, including not washing hands with soap. Canada can be a force for change in global health by stimulating action to improve health systems in developing countries, and making water, sanitation and hygiene part of the solution for global malnutrition.

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for economic prosperity. They keep people healthy, allowing them to become more educated, to go to work and earn money, and to spend more time caring for their families. For every dollar invested in sanitation, an average of at least $4 is returned in increased productivity. . By investing in water, sanitation and hygiene, Canada can help boost economies. When citizens become less consumed with these basic lifesaving necessities, they can go to work healthier and be more productive.

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for climate policy. Climate change leads to more frequent and unpredictable weather episodes, less consistent water availability, increased flood risk and more polluted water sources. There is no doubt that this will significantly affect the quantity and quality of available water. Poor people are disproportionately affected by floods, droughts and contaminated water. Canada is in the position to work collaboratively with developing countries, helping them cope with today’s climate variability and the impact of disasters in a responsible and sustainable way.

Global Goal 6 is the catalyst for the successful realization of many of the Global Goals. The truth is, they all go hand in hand. Failing on water and sanitation also means failing on gender equality, quality education, good health, resilient infrastructure, economic growth, and the list goes on.

Canada has an opportunity to lead by example and champion the human right to water and sanitation by making it the cornerstone of Canada’s international development strategy. We can be a force for change by strengthening investment and policy that integrates water, sanitation and hygiene across all development priorities. In doing so, we can transform the lives of the poorest and marginalized, especially women and girls.

Photo: WaterAid/Anna Kai

This article is part of the International Assistance special feature.


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