Dirty water, poor health: MEPs can help change this

Handwashing
9 Apr 2019
Photo: WaterAid / Guilhem Alandry

7 April marked World Health Day with a focus this year on Universal Health Coverage (UHC), one of the key targets of the Agenda 2030. A concept that may seem technical or abstract, but that has a very tangible meaning for low-income households. It is about ensuring that parents of sick kids do not need to fear not being able to find or afford quality healthcare.

To achieve the promise of UHC, health systems need to be equitable, efficient, sustainable and resilient. And they cannot be any of those without paying attention to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). 

Unfortunately, the role of WASH as a key health determinant does not seem to be fully considered and acted on by donors and policy makers. New data released by WHO and UNICEF on 3 April about WASH in health care facilities shows that:

  • Nearly half (45%) of health care facilities in least developed countries lack basic water services.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, only 1 in 4 health care facilities (23%) had even basic sanitation services.
  • In Eastern and South-Eastern Asia just 1 in 3 health care facilities (36%) had basic hygiene services.

Without adequate water, sanitation, hygiene, waste management and environmental cleaning services in all health care facilities, governments cannot ensure patient safety, cannot prevent or control disease outbreaks such as cholera or Ebola, and the world cannot tackle the rising global threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Why put this on the EU elections campaign agenda?

The EU Consensus on Development – the EU’s vision for its role and priorities in development and cooperation - outlines the EU’s main goals when supporting partner countries in strengthening their health systems, such as “health workforce training”, “preventing and combating communicable diseases”, and “addressing global health threats such as antimicrobial resistance”. It also highlights that “universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene is a prerequisite for health”.

Indeed, supporting EU investments in WASH is the way forward to ensure that efforts made to reach those health-related goals do achieve results. 

The European Parliament plays a key role in ensuring that EU development policies and programmes are in line with the EU Consensus on Development, and in strengthening the EU commitments towards the respect of human rights, including the right to health, and eradication of poverty in the framework of the Agenda 2030.

MEPs and the Parliament as a whole have a crucial role to play in ensuring that the EU contributes both to achieving SDG 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) and SDG 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all).

EU election candidates must commit to action

In 2006, my first work experience in the human rights field was an internship within the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights. Since then, I have always worked in relation to the European Parliament, in one way or another. Throughout the last 13 years, though the European Parliament commitment to human rights has sometimes been shaky, it has on many occasions, taken bold positions to make sure the EU would fully protect, respect and promote human rights. These rights include the rights to water, sanitation and hygiene. The unacceptable state of WASH in health care facilities in many EU partner countries is just one example of why candidates for the EU elections must be bolder than ever to fulfil the promise of health for all.

Candidates to the EU elections, by joining our StandUp4Water pledge, commit to demonstrate leadership in raising the profile of WASH on the EU political agenda.

More specifically, in relation to health, I urge the future members of the European Parliament to make sure that no new health care facility built with EU funding, is built without WASH provision. MEPs must call for WASH to be fully integrated across health system strengthening efforts – not just in terms of infrastructure, but also in the training of healthcare staff in WASH and infection prevention and control, and in urgently addressing data gaps to enable effective monitoring. The data mentioned above highlights major gaps, with many countries unable to know their status and progress because they are not collecting the data to do so. Progress towards UHC cannot be accurately measured if countries, and the EU, are unable to see if health care facilities and health professionals have the water, sanitation and hygiene they need to provide quality healthcare.

These are essential basics – without them, health for all is an impossible dream. I call on candidates in these EU elections to be the political generation that says, enough is enough. World Health Day may be over for 2019, but let's #StandUp4Water every day.