Harnessing the “H” in WASH: The need to ensure hygiene’s place in the SDGs

Editors Note: This guest blog post is authored by Hanna Woodburn, Deputy Secretariat Director for the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing. In her post, Hanna discusses the importance of incorporating targets and indicators on hygiene, a critical but often overlooked area, into the post-2015 development agenda under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She points out that, while the proposed goal for water under the SDGs is a step in the right direction, there is a need to develop global level indicators that more accurately assess progress on hygiene.

Hanna Woodburn, Deputy Secretariat Director for the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing

Some of the world’s greatest development challenges have the simplest solutions. If you are reading this blog, you likely know the facts about water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). You probably know that diarrhea and pneumonia are the top killers of children under the age of five, and that WASH can make a big difference in saving these lives. You might be able to cite statistics about how many days of school children miss due to diarrhea (272 million per year, in case you were wondering), or be able to describe the impact that a lack of facilities have on menstruating girls’ education.

However, did you know that you can and should be involved in ensuring that WASH is an integral component of the Post-2015 development agenda?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), established in 2000, represented a major shift in the way in which the global community rallied against some of the world’s greatest economic and development challenges. Many successes born out of the MDGs are hard to ignore. Sources of improved drinking water became available for 2.3 billion people. Major progress was made in the fight against child mortality, with the mortality rate for children under the age of five dropping from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 in 2012. Between 2000 and 2012, primary school enrollment increased from 83 percent to 90 percent in developing regions.

And yet, critical goals remain off-target, particularly that of sanitation. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the global community is currently debating, represent an opportunity to continue the work that began under the MDGs, but the SDGs must also be used to address gaps in the goals, and a major oversight in terms of WASH was the absence of hygiene.

This must not occur again. Hygiene undergirds success in a myriad of areas, including reducing under five mortality, education, nutrition, gender equity, and more. And of course it is an essential counterpart to water and sanitation.

Despite its importance, hygiene is far too often overlooked, as we saw in the MDG era. And, as the 2014 Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) Report found, hygiene is also largely ignored at the country level, with only 19 of the 93 countries surveyed having an approved, funded, implemented, and reviewed national hygiene policy. Likewise, only 18 countries had national hygiene policies in schools and healthcare centers that fulfilled the same requirements.

The GLAAS report confirms that lack of investment in hygiene is a serious barrier to progress in international development, and that there are inequities in access to proper handwashing facilities. Knowing these shortcomings exist, however, is very different than taking action to address them, but with the United Nations’ work on developing global SDGs, the international community faces a valuable juncture wherein water, sanitation, and hygiene can be prioritized.

The proposed Water Goal (Goal 6) is a step in the right direction, and an indicator addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene is included under the goal, presently. However, this is not enough to guarantee that WASH under the SDGs will be adequately measured and prioritized. Rather, water, sanitation, and hygiene must be included as mandatory, global level indicators. These indicators should address not just the availability of the critical hardware and behavioural promotion to encourage their use at the household level, but also at important public locations, such as schools and healthcare centers.

Given the importance of hygiene, the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing has taken a leading role in advocating for hygiene at the global level. We encourage you to download our hygiene advocacy toolkit and join us in our advocacy efforts.

Without proper investment, measurement, and prioritization of WASH, the global community is missing an important opportunity to improve the health and lives of billions of babies, children, and adults around the world. The global community has an opportunity to change this. Everyone, young or old, rich or poor, should have access to these life-saving resources by the year 2030.