Water access: a fundamental human right
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a reminder that better access to water and hygiene for everyone is essential – especially for improving global public health. Nearly 2.5 billion people around the world have no access to sanitary facilities. The 9th World Water Forum in Dakar aims to draw attention to such inequalities. Switzerland, which has worked for six decades to support equal and sustainable access to water and hygiene, will send a delegation to the forum.
Switzerland is committed to providing access to drinking water, notably through innovation and effective integrated water management, and also supports the use of transboundary water cooperation as a tool for peacebuilding and sustainable development. Often referred to as the 'water tower of Europe', the country draws 80% of its drinking water from groundwater reserves. However, the majority of the goods and food consumed in Switzerland are not produced using these reserves. In fact, 82% of the country's water footprint is generated by the production of goods imported from abroad – often from regions where water is scarce.
To face up to its responsibilities, Switzerland is investing significant resources into improving global access to drinking water and hygiene, notably via the Global Programme Water of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). This fundamental human right has a direct bearing on global public health challenges, and has become even more urgent over the past two years with the spread of COVID-19.
Water access: a prerequisite for combatting the pandemic
When COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world had no vaccines or medicines to combat this new threat to public health. One of the most important means of preventing infection was also one of the oldest: handwashing. A lack of water for personal hygiene allows viruses to thrive, and quickly puts lives in danger. In the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization: "Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene must be a global priority if we are to end this pandemic and build more resilient health systems."
However, in 2021 it was estimated that 2.3 billion people around the world were unable to wash their hands with soap and water at home. One third of the world's healthcare establishments do not have hand hygiene facilities and nearly a quarter have no sanitation services.
Switzerland's international cooperation in action
In this context, Switzerland's international cooperation is working via a consortium of eight Swiss NGOs to fund a programme providing access to water, sanitation and hygiene in primary healthcare centres and schools in Asia and West and East Africa. This work is helping to improve sustainable access to drinking water, individual toilets and handwashing facilities. In one such initiative, As part of these initiatives, Terre des hommes, a member of the Consortium, supported the installation of "Gravit'eau" devices powered by recycled water. The sinks, equipped with a filtering system, are inexpensive, robust and produce only 5 milliliters of grey water, as opposed to the 500 milliliters usually consumed after a handwash. Among other places, Gravit’eau kiosks are used in Nigerian refugee camps, where access to drinking water is a daily concern. Caritas Suisse, another member of the consortium, is working under the 'Blue Schools' approach to improve access to drinking water and sanitation facilities in 45 schools in Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey province, where only a quarter of primary schools meet basic WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) criteria.
The Swiss approach draws on an network of knowledge and expertise among NGOs, local authorities and Swiss research centers, such as the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) and Eawag. The use of sanitation facilities and the work done by the consortium's programmes to raise awareness on hygiene help to prevent illnesses – especially those linked to the consumption of unsafe water – and drastically reduce their transmission.
A forum that puts water back on the world stage
Although water is indispensable to life on earth, neither the challenges relating to it nor their solutions are sufficiently discussed in political circles. The organisers of the 9th World Water Forum, which begins on 21 March 2022, are seeking to change this. The forum is the world's most important event for discussing water-related challenges, and will take place in Dakar – the first time it has been held in sub-Saharan Africa.
This edition will focus on four priorities, including "Water Security and Sanitation". Switzerland attaches significant importance to this international event and its presence at the Forum will highlight its water solutions at all levels and on all priority themes.
Cover image : The Swiss consortium for water and sanitation strives to provide dignified sanitation infrastructures adapted to the mobility of everyone in Mali © Terre des hommes