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The high-level segment of the sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP6) to the Protocol on Water and Health focused on the central role of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in addressing 2 converging crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Around 300 delegates representing more than 47 countries, as well as several United Nations agencies and regional partners, gathered on 16–18 November in Geneva, Switzerland, to set priorities in the areas of WASH and health for the coming years in the pan-European region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all the importance of WASH for basic public health, as hand hygiene was central to the response. Before the development of vaccines and treatment, hand hygiene was, along with physical distancing, the first effective and immediately available measure to reduce community transmission and protect health-care workers. Yet, efficient hand hygiene practice is fundamentally dependant on the provision of adequate WASH facilities.
“Safe water and adequate sanitation are prerequisites for human dignity, gender equality and inclusive development,” said United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova at MOP6. Yet, “climate change constitutes a major additional obstacle to fully realizing the human rights to water and sanitation for all,” she added.
Climate change is a threat multiplier; in the face of such threats water and sanitation services represent the backbone of resilience and security of communities and individuals. Efficient WASH services minimize the waste of a resource that has become increasingly precious in the light of water scarcity, while effective wastewater treatment and protection of water sources from pollution enable water re-use, so fundamental to the circular economy and sustainable agriculture practices. Safe and resilient WASH services can help countries tackle existing and emerging threats while also driving forward achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Maintaining WASH services enables hospitals and communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.
The Protocol on Water and Health strives to implement the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, increase resilience to climate change and prepare for future pandemics while protecting human health, environment and water resources. As a forward-looking instrument, it provides reliable approaches and a successful multilateral regional platform for achieving the WASH-related SDGs and commitments made in 2017 at the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Ostrava, Czechia.
Coinciding with the close of MOP6, 19 November was World Toilet Day. This year, the focus was on the impact of the sanitation crisis on groundwater. Groundwater is the world’s most abundant source of freshwater, and yet it is threatened by climate change, as well as inadequate sanitation systems spreading human waste into rivers, lakes and soil, polluting underground water resources. Safely managed sanitation protects groundwater from human waste pollution.
“Today, almost everyone has a mobile phone, but not everyone has access to a proper toilet. In the pan-European region, over 271 million people lack access to safely managed sanitation that protects health and the environment. Twenty-nine million people are without even basic infrastructure to go to the toilet safely, and with dignity,” commented Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, at MOP6. “Disappointingly, at the current rate of progress, we will fail to meet SDG 6.2: to ensure safe toilets for all by 2030. We need to work 4 times harder and faster to get there, and the Protocol on Water and Health is an accelerator in closing that sanitation gap.”
WHO/Europe and UNECE launched a new report this week on “Delivering safe sanitation for all”, which indicates priority areas for action to improve the situation in the pan-European region. Any improvement, whether in a large city or in a small-scale rural system, must be sustainable and resilient to be able to protect our future generations in the face of a changing climate.
We cannot miss the opportunity to accelerate progress on SDG 6 – to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all – using the Protocol on Water and Health and its tools to ensure universal access to water and sanitation.
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