September 1, 2016
Integration is very much a buzzword here at Stockholm World Water Week, and for good reason. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) underscore many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and will be critical to achieving success in related areas, including education, nutrition, and health. But, integration doesn’t only happen between sectors. And so I was excited to see progress having been made since last year on addressing the need to integrate WASH into the private sector.
Through initiatives, such as WASH4Work and the draft white paper produced by WaterAid, the CEO Water Mandate, and World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the mainstreaming of WASH into supply chains is increasingly becoming an important topic. This is encouraging.
The evidence for WASH in the workplace is strong. In addition to its importance in reaching the SDGs, WASH has positive economic ramifications. Every $1 USD invested in WASH delivers approximately $4 USD to the economy, largely due to increased productivity.¹ In addition to improving health, WASH in the workplace can reduce absenteeism, avoid costs, and improve worker productivity. Furthermore, ensuring access to WASH is the right thing to do. And yet, there are challenges. We must ensure that an increased focus on WASH in the workplace doesn’t divert government resources from WASH service delivery to the most vulnerable and communities in need. Incentives must be aligned appropriately and facilities must be maintained and sustained.
There are a few ways that companies can approach WASH, including audits, certification systems, and worker wellbeing and livelihoods programs. I would argue that—from the hygiene perspective—while it is essential that corporate WASH programs not only include delivery of toilets and taps, comprehensive behavior change must be a component of these initiatives for real impact to be realized. This presents the best opportunity for improving health and wellbeing, not only within the walls of the workplace, but in the larger community as a whole.
It is also clear that there was consensus about the importance of partnerships. While the impetus for improving WASH in the workplace may fall to the private sector, they should not be alone in ensuring good WASH. Lessons from non-profits about successes in programs will help make sure that WASH service delivery isn’t merely a talking point on corporate social responsibility; WASH initiatives in schools, support from governments, and partnerships will lead to real outcomes and positive differences in the lives of workers and the communities in which private sector corporations operate. As one panelist said, we should use the collaborative ‘carrot’ as a way to create incentives and spur action. This works better than using the metaphorical ‘stick’ of top-down approach embedded in policy change.
We are on the right track. I, for one, am excited to see what progress we will continue to make on this issue between now and next year’s Stockholm World Water Week.
UN Water/UNESCO. (2016). Water and Jobs: The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002439/243938e.pdf
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