Opening Remarks by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, At opening of Sanitation and Water for All Sector Ministers’ Meeting San José, Costa Rica April 4, 2019

04 April 2019
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore
On 11 June 2018, (centre) UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore speaks during the annual session of the 2018 UNICEF Executive Board at the United Nations Headquarters.

First, my thanks to the Government of Costa Rica for hosting this event — and for this country’s ongoing commitment to sanitation and water for all.

On behalf of everyone at UNICEF — especially our dedicated WASH staff in over 100 countries around the world — we appreciate this opportunity to galvanize support for this important issue.

But we also have an opportunity — and an obligation — to discuss new approaches and set clear priorities.           

Because despite our great progress, new UNICEF and WHO data shows that over two billion people still lack access to safely managed water services. That 4.4 billion lack safely managed sanitation. And 1.4 billion lack basic handwashing facilities at home.

The risks are huge.

Risks to children’s health, when over 700 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation, hygiene and water every day.

Risks to maternal health, when millions of mothers who give birth in health facilities without basic water, sanitation and hygiene are at risk of infection and disease.

Risks to education, when girls are kept home because of a lack of separate toilets or hygiene facilities in schools.

Risks to growth, because parents can’t prepare healthy meals for their children without safe water — and children’s bodies can’t retain nutrients.

And risks to entire economies. According to the World Health Organization, poor sanitation results in an estimated global GDP loss of $260 billion annually, because of health costs and productivity losses.

We must do better.

UNICEF has set an ambitious goal. By 2021, we’re aiming for 60 million more people gaining access to safe drinking water. And 250 million fewer people practicing open defecation.

To help get there, more progress is urgently needed in three areas — WASH in health care facilities, WASH in conflict, and bringing more private sector expertise, products and financing into our work.

First — WASH in health care facilities.

According to a new report UNICEF and WHO released yesterday, one in four health care facilities lacks basic water services. Putting an estimated two billion people at increased risk of infection.

Consider the birth of a baby. Every birth should be supported by a safe pair of hands, washed with soap and water, using sterile equipment, in a clean environment.

Consider also the plight of mothers in the least-developed countries. Seventeen million of them give birth in health centres with inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene every year. Putting them at risk of maternal sepsis.

The report includes eight specific actions that governments can take to improve WASH services in these facilities. From establishing national plans and targets — to improving infrastructure — to working directly with communities to create demand.

The bottom line is this. Improving WASH services is a solvable problem with a high return on investment. And it represents one more step towards improving primary health care services for all people, no matter where they live.

The second priority is WASH in conflicts.

In Lebanon last year, local mayors told me that water is the number-one issue they face. Water systems are straining to meet communities’ needs with the influx of Syrian refugees. Just one example of many where existing water systems are strained by humanitarian crises. 

In fact, one in four children in the world is living in a country affected by conflict or disaster. We know that children living in fragile and conflict-affected countries are twice as likely to lack basic sanitation — and four times as likely to lack basic drinking water.

And unsafe water can be as deadly as bullets or bombs. Children under 15 are almost three times more likely to die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation — like diarrhoea or cholera — than from direct violence.

We’re also seeing access to water being used as a weapon of war. Direct and deliberate attacks on water systems are all too common in conflict. When the flow of clean water stops, children are forced to rely on unsafe sources.

A new UNICEF advisory published last month calls for an immediate end to attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and personnel.

And it calls for investments in these countries’ WASH sectors that will serve not only immediate humanitarian needs — but the long-term development of sustainable water systems.

At UNICEF, we’re taking this long-term view across all of our emergency WASH programmes.

From building dams in Somalia to improve rainwater-harvesting and water security.

To providing emergency water and sanitation to almost 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

To our work in South Sudan, training local women to install water taps, build new latrines with separate facilities for men and women, and ensure that these facilities are well-lit with street lamps.

Step by step, we’re not only improving WASH services in the midst of crisis — we’re building the lasting, resilient systems these communities need to support development in the decades ahead.

My third point is about working with the private sector across our water and sanitation programming.

This includes market development to meet consumer demand — and even potential employment for local populations.

In East Africa, UNICEF has partnered with the LIXIL Corporation and governments across the region to expand the availability of affordable, state-of-the-art toilet pans that use little water.

In Somalia, we’re working with the EU, local government, and businesses and investors to develop public-private partnerships focused on pipelines and reservoirs…drilling and testing boreholes…and supporting better water-system management and maintenance.

And in Bangladesh, Sanitation Market Systems — or “SanMarkS” — is bringing together public, private and development partners to reach more households with improved sanitation. Manufacturing firms are producing low-cost latrine parts and working with local companies to market and install them. So far, 95,000 latrines have been sold, and more than 500 local people are installing and marketing them.

As we move forward, let’s also be inspired by the impressive progress that so many countries and regions have made in recent years.

The progress of South Asia — which has seen the greatest increase in the use of toilets over than last decade than at any time in history.

The progress of Ethiopia, Nepal and Cambodia — all on track to eliminating open defecation by 2030. If not earlier.

The progress of Niger, Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo and Mozambique. All have national roadmaps to deliver total access to sanitation, in every community.

The work in Ghana to bring together the World Bank, the government of the Netherlands and Ghana’s Apex Bank to develop a microfinance mechanism to provide loans to communities to build low-cost toilets.

And the progress we see in the co-operative efforts among governments to learn from one another. As Nigeria has been working closely with India to learn from that country’s Swachh Bharat Mission for total sanitation. An important reminder that we all have much to learn from each other’s progress.

As these successes prove, there is no excuse for failing to act.

So let’s combine our ideas and efforts. Let’s learn from one another. Let’s hold each other accountable for our commitments. And let’s make the coming decade one of action, results and progress for this critical sector. Thank you.


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