The Launch of the U.S. Congressional International Water and Sanitation Caucus

WASH During COVID 19: What We Know
(And Why Cities Need Safe Water and Sanitation More Than Ever)

Tuesday, September 15th marked the launch of the U.S. Congressional International Water and Sanitation Caucus! The efforts of Caucus Chairs RepresentativeEarl Blumenauer (D-OR), Darin La Hood (R-IL), Xochitl Torres Small (D-MN), and Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and their staff to establish the Cacus, bolstered and guided by the advocacy and support of dedicated NGO’s, could not have been more timely. 

sdg 6

TThe COVID-19 global pandemic has rendered the challenge of delivering safe water and sanitation more urgent than ever and illuminated the critical place of cities during health crises as overcrowded low-income neighborhoods and slums disconnected from basic water and sanitation services threaten to become virus hotspots.

The launch of the Caucus coincides with an increasingly uncertain future for international aid worldwide. In 2020, the world’s top donor countries drastically decreased their foreign aid commitments. During the first five months of 2019, the top 13 donor countries and European Union institutions committed $23.9 billion to foreign aid, while in the same five-month period of 2020, the total aid from that bloc declined to $16.9 billion, a 30% decrease. Donor country economies themselves are struggling during the pandemic and national lockdowns, but the decrease in foreign aid could especially devastate developing countries and humanitarian situations, which are far from declaring the crisis over.

If this trend continues, the delivery of safe water and sanitation services, already tenuous in significant swathes of the world, will suffer with devastating repercussions for virus transmission in cities and across the urban-rural spectrum. It is widely accepted that social distancing and handwashing are critical for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Yet, both practices are nearly impossible for the one billion people who live in slums around the world. Journalists Saeed Shah and Joe Parkinson have argued that the largest shared vulnerability in developing countries is the “giant urban slums where hundreds of millions live with poor sanitation and no plumbing.” In Africa, for instance, this means that 60% of its urban residents or 587 million people are unable to carry out practices such as hand washing. But, even wealthier cities are not immune to meeting the challenges of urban WASH: during the first months of the COVID-19, Singapore housed its migrant workers in overcrowded dormitories where 10-12 men shared a room and up to 80 might share a single toilet. The city’s migrant workers came to comprise 98% of its cases during the time.

As daunting as the challenge of delivery safe water and sanitation around the world is, the efforts of international and local NGOs to ensure water services are equally impressive. For instance, the Kenyan community organization Shining Hope for Communities Organization (SHOFCO) has endeavored to provide handwashing stations and public health awareness programs to the Kibera slum of Nairobi, where half a million people are disconnected from formal water services. SHOFCO has also installed a network of drinking water points linked by suspended aerial pipes and a purification plant that provides drinking water to residents at a heavily subsidized price.

IHC Global wants to make sure comprehensive water and sanitation policies are the heart of such local initiatives to guarantee long-term sustainability. We believe that policy and action must go hand and hand. Governments must think purposefully about ensuring water and sanitation, commit themselves to the challenge, and work with a multiplicity of partners: civil society, private sector, and in the United States – work “across the aisle.”

That is why we are so excited about the bipartisan Water and Sanitation Caucus initiative! We are optimistic this bipartisan initiative can guide American aid investments and global partnerships and we are proud to join other NGOs, including the advocacy coalition InterAction, to support their endeavor.

SHOFCO has installed handwashing stations in parts of Nairobi, which is home to Africa's largest slum Kibera. Sixty percent of Nairobi's population lives in Kibera in overcrowded, inadequate housing without access to basic services including water and sanitation. (Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Caucus kicked off with a virtual event hosted by advocacy coalition InterAction, of which IHC Global is a proud member. The event “WASH During COVID-19: What We Know So Far,” laid out the rationale behind the Caucus, the commitment of the Representative Chairs and Caucus members, and why the global pandemic and lockdowns have made its launch especially prescient.

WaterAid America CEO Kelly Parsons noted that 40% of the world lacks access to safe water to wash their hands, a practice widely considered to be the frontline of defense against COVID-19 transmission. USAID Development Global Water Coordinator Jennifer Mack pointed out that 1/3 of the world lacks access to safe drinking water, 1/3 lack access to safe sanitation, and by 2025, 2/3 of the world’s population may face the threat of water security.

These statistics have dire health, economic, security, and humanitarian consequences, the Representatives agreed. Representative La Hood stated that global economic losses due to inadequate water and sanitation cost up to $260 billion annually or 1.5% of the global GDP. Deputy Assistant Mack explained the security implications of water instability for the United States: drought, poor water quality, and floods all increase stability and distract American partners from working on critical policy initiatives.

Panelists agreed that the pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of better water sanitation around the world for virus transmission and health outcomes as well as the importance of safe water for reopening economies as well.

Despite the daunting challenge, panelists also shared the conviction that WASH investments are critical to post-pandemic economic recovery, made possible through global commitment, cross-sectoral partnerships, and market-based interventions. Representative La Hood noted that improving global WASH can add over $60 billion USD to the world economy annually.

IHC Global is grateful that Committee Chair Representatives Blumenhauer, La Hood, Torres, and Walorski, along with eight Representative members, are highlighting the linkage between global water and prosperity and are making the case for why the U.S. must play a decisive leadership role. As Representatives Blumenhauer and La Hood summed up in an op-ed on Tuesday: 

“The U.S. government spends less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the federal budget on global WASH. This crucial, cost-effective investment has been overlooked far too long; it needs to be a cornerstone of U.S. development, diplomacy, and defense. Our allies around the world need to step up, too. And that is what our new caucus is ready to accomplish.”

Watch the Caucus launch here.

Natalie Gill is Program and Policy Coordinator at IHC Global. Natalie has an expertise in gender and women’s economic empowerment through secure land and property rights, equitable urban development, and technology, with a special focus on low and middle-income countries. Her work on gender and technology in cities has been featured in URBANET, Open Global Rights, and Land Portal.