By the UN Foundation’s Natalie Africa and Jonathan Rich

Each year, thousands of people from around the world who work on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) related issues descend on Stockholm, Sweden for one week of meetings and events. Stockholm World Water Week, as it’s known, took place last month under the theme, “Water for Sustainable Growth,” a fitting theme given the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, which call for “access to water and sanitation for all” by 2030.

At Stockholm World Water Week, the Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, a global platform that mobilizes business leaders to advance water stewardship and access to sanitation, kicked the week off with a focus on a new initiative entitled WASH4Work.  This collaboration among close to a dozen partners, including the United Nations Foundation and chaired by UNICEF, focuses on how to improve the engagement of the private sector in expanding access to WASH.

Traditionally, and during the era of the Millennium Development Goals, the focus by many in the WASH sector was primarily on improving access to WASH in people’s homes and to some extent in health care facilities and schools. But despite significant progress worldwide, an estimated 663 million people are still without access to safe water[i].  An estimated 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation[ii] and each day, on average, nearly 1,000 children under age 5 die from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor WASH[iii].

The Sustainable Development Goals, however, are universal and meant to apply to everyone, everywhere. Additionally, these goals are quite clear about the need for global partnerships and for catalyzing robust engagement of the private sector if we are to have any hope of achieving them. Sustainable Development Goal 6, in particular, strengthens the WASH priority by calling for universal access to water and sanitation by 2030.

To help achieve this goal, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, after launching his “Call to Action on Sanitation” in 2015, encouraged those in the WASH sector to look for ways to better engage the private sector. A collaborative response to this call led to the establishment of the WASH4Work initiative.

The 11 WASH4Work partners are now working together to mobilize businesses around the world to improve access to WASH in the workplace, in communities where workers live, and across supply chains.

For the private sector, which accounts for 90% of employment globally, gaps in access to WASH means both risk and opportunity. In 2015, the lack of access to clean water and sanitation cost the global economy some $222.9 billion.[iv] But the case for investment is strong, since every $1 invested in water and sanitation leads to $4.30 in economic returns through increased productivity due to better health and wellbeing, and reduced absences from work[v].

Given the UN Foundation’s extensive work in global health and private sector engagement, including through our role in engaging business in the Every Woman Every Child movement, there was a recognition of the opportunity that existed to delve deeper into this complex issue and identify concrete ways to improve the private sector’s engagement in WASH.

The integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals also demonstrates that progress on WASH is central to progress on a range of issues, including women’s and children’s health, gender equality, and climate change.

We are just getting started, but the CEO Water Mandate event in Stockholm was a terrific opportunity to explain this initiative to a business audience and obtain feedback and ideas. This feedback is enabling WASH4Work partners to further develop the business case for investing in WASH, as well as a “Framework for Action” document designed to assist companies in concrete ways which want to improve access to WASH.

With a diverse array of knowledgeable partners, which in addition to those already mentioned, include Unilever, WSUP, WBCSD, WaterAid, The Global Poverty Project, the ILO, WSSCC, and Sanitation and Water for All, this initiative is a logical outgrowth of the adoption of the global goals for sustainable development and an exciting new avenue to work with partners to drive progress on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues.

To learn more, go to:

[Photo: UNICEF]

[i]WHO and UNICEF, Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water – 2015 Update and MDG Assessment, 2015.


[iii]CHERG: Analysis based on estimates presented in Committing to Child Survival – A Promise Renewed: Progress Report, 2015.

[iv] Forthcoming document updating WSP, Guy Hutton report.

[v]Hutton G, Haller I, Bartram J, Economic and health effects of increasing coverage of low-cost household drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to countries off-track to meet MDG target 10, 2007.