The COVID-19 global pandemic highlights the critical need for increased investment in safe water and sanitation for all.
Water and sanitation are basic, but indispensable, first lines of defense in combating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you don’t have water, you can’t wash your hands. If you have to use a shared toilet facility, you can’t practice social distancing. Yet today, 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water, and 1 in 3 don’t have access to decent sanitation. That’s 2.5 billion people living without access to these basic necessities that could help curb the spread of disease in some of our most vulnerable populations.
Through our work in India, we’ve seen the entire lifecycle of government lockdowns due to COVID-19 and how they’ve affected the livelihoods of underserved communities. For example, millions of people rely on shared sanitation facilities or open fields as their main options — exposing themselves not only to COVID-19, but also to communicable diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid. Families without a toilet in their homes take extraordinary health risks to meet fundamental needs.
At WaterEquity, we know the greatest barrier to accessing safe water and sanitation is affordable financing. To overcome this, we’ve created a simple, yet powerful, model: WaterEquity impact investment funds provide debt capital to financial institutions in emerging markets to help scale their water and sanitation microloan portfolios. These microloans then enable low-income consumers to install simple water and sanitation solutions within their homes, such as a water connection or toilet, leading to improved health outcomes, educational opportunities, and economic security. An illustrative example of how this works on a local level can be seen through microloan borrower Jeyalakshmi’s story:
Jeyalakshmi is a mother of three who lives in Tamil Nadu, India, and is a leader in her local women’s self-help group. Just three months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jeyalakshmi and her self-help group were consulted on the multi-fold health benefits of having a toilet. As a result, Jeyalakshmi decided to take out an affordable microloan from her local microfinance institution to construct a private toilet on her property. Jeyalakshmi shared how thankful she is that her family now has a toilet at home, especially during the pandemic: “When Coronavirus appeared, I realized even more the importance of having a toilet,” adding, “thankfully, my whole family is able to stay home now to use the toilet, and to better protect ourselves from the virus.”
To reduce the escalating trajectory of this pandemic and mitigate the impact of those that follow, we must ensure the vital needs of safe water and sanitation are met. Economists put a $1 trillion dollar price tag on solving the global water and sanitation crisis by 2030. No one source of capital is going to be able to achieve this alone. We need to harness the ingenuity and resources of governments and foundations, alongside capital markets and private investors, to create collaborative, blended approaches that put money to work to solve critical, social challenges threatening global health and prosperity.
With public and private partners, we can unlock trillions in capital to solve the global water and sanitation crisis, deliver affordable solutions to millions of low-income consumers, and build the resilience of vulnerable communities. The future of global health is in our hands.
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Illustrative example used with permission from WaterEquity’s sister organization, Water.org.