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Lest we forget: investment in hygiene, sanitation and water key to fighting COVID-19 – Part 2

Muyatwa Sitali, Head of Country Engagement, Sanitation and Water for All
22 Sep 2020

Investing in sanitation, water, and hygiene creates jobs and is good for the economy too.

The impact of COVID-19 is driving most leaders to fix economies that have been brought to their breaking points and have in a way made 2020 the lost year of this decade. But fixing economies alone will not take away the root cause and the vulnerabilities which make us susceptible to public health pandemics. Fixing economies alone will be akin to mopping the floor while the leaking tap continues to gush streams of water.

Luckily, investing in life-saving water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives is a smart choice. It is good for our health, and it is good for our economies. It is also good in its own right. Who doesn’t need water of good quality, a dignified place to call a toilet and soap with which to clean their hands. After all, water is life and sanitation is dignity. 

Most water and sanitation infrastructure are in critical need of rehabilitation, restoration and maintenance. In several places, new infrastructure is desperately needed to reach communities that lack or have inadequate services. Significant investments to build water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure can create jobs. The construction of water and sanitation systems offers immense opportunities to employ thousands of young women and men. Investments in extending services through expanding distribution lines and increasing connections for urban populations do not just help provide social services for increasingly large urban centers; it also offers jobs in urban areas that carry significant risks for political unrest when services continue to be abysmal. The more people can be connected to water and sanitation systems, the larger the customer base for service providers. Given that most people are willing to pay if they can get a good service, this, in turn, can increase the revenue for service providers and create a path for reduced dependence on government grants and subsidies. Consequently, allowing governments to spend limited resources in more vulnerable low-income communities in slums and rural areas. The ecosystem of services dependent on an efficiently operating water and sanitation system is robust. Human Resources and institutions needed to maintain services and assure quality are as crucial as those required to build them. The sector, therefore, provides a plethora of blue-collar jobs.

In India, the Prime Minister’s flagship program, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) had a total impact of 7.55 million (full-time employment equivalent) workers through direct and indirect employment effects. This was on an average of 1.51 million per year over the entire SBM period. The SBM was a program aimed at eliminating open defecation in India. 

As put by Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program who analyzed jobs in the water sector, “water utilities employ many workers, but multiple other industries and establishments, including engineering firms and construction contractors, are essential to the water sector too. Collectively, the water workforce fills 212 different occupations—from positions in the skilled trades like electricians and technicians to financial, administrative, and management positions—that are found everywhere, from big metropolitan markets to smaller rural areas”. Even if their focus was on the United States, their finding on the network of jobs associated with the water sector could be easy to see in other countries. They add that the water sector is responsible for “hiring a diverse workforce” and “can support greater economic mobility.”

Equally, sanitation and hygiene provide commensurate opportunities for jobs and economic activity of households and communities. But these opportunities cannot be fully harnessed without upfront, and often significant investments in building not only the physical infrastructure but also the human and institutional capacity to develop, regulate and maintain these services. Without these investments, life and dignity will remain at risk. 


Read Part 1Part 3 and Part 4 of this blog series.