This week sees Stockholm play host to World Water Week, an annual event bringing together leaders in the field to discuss how to address the world’s greatest water related challenges. At the top of the agenda is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: ensuring universal access to water and sanitation. Poor access still affects over half the world’s population, resulting in needless deaths, disease, missed education and reduced productivity. Early indications suggest that efforts towards this critical goal are making the least progress of all SDGs since their adoption in 2015.
A recent paper from the United Nations summarises what is going wrong: put simply, not enough money is being committed to address the challenge. Over 80% of countries lack the finance to meet sanitation targets. As a result, 4.5 billion people lack access to safe sanitation. But beyond the human toll comes a devastating economic cost, with estimates suggesting that inadequate sanitation costs the global economy around quarter of a trillion dollars every year.
This picture looks bleak, but it doesn’t have to. A simple reframing of sanitation provision as a business opportunity should have a profoundly positive impact on progress. There is value – potentially a fortune – in delivering safe sanitation systems in developing countries. Shifting attention toward this value could unlock financing from sectors from across the economy, as well as from commercial investors who have overlooked the growth potential in sanitation.
The global economic opportunities are enormous, potentially even greater than the costs. Estimates put the value of the sanitation economy in India alone at $62 billion up to 2021. Delivering this in India could establish a fully functioning and mutually beneficial sanitation economy, turning the outlook for SDG6 to one of success. But further collaborative action between governments, international organisations and business is essential to unlock this social and commercial value.
Imagine a world where the provision of sanitation services recovers most of its costs, and the value that lies within sanitation systems is revenue generating and delivered through an ecosystem of profitable business models that attract commercial investment. This alternative development pathway would dramatically reduce the onerous cost of sanitation infrastructure, while opening up new opportunities for enterprises large and small by engaging the private sector.
This sanitation economy is a business-led vision for sanitation systems of the future that links three core areas. First is the toilet economy: toilets and supporting infrastructure suitable for and accessible to people from any background or level of income – leaving no one behind. The second pillar is the growing circular economy movement. Shocking as it may sound to some, human waste is a reliable, sustainable and growing source of valuable and increasingly scarce resources such as nutrients, proteins, energy and water. There are many examples of businesses creating valuable products which re-use water, replacing chemical fertilisers for crops and unsustainable wood burning for energy, all derived from human waste.
Third, looking to the future, is the smart sanitation economy. Smart, digitally enabled sanitation systems can provide a wealth of data about human health and behaviour, becoming the early warning system driving preventative healthcare more effective and efficient than is possible today. This is not space-age stuff: the technology already exists. In fact, the Toilet Board Coalition is collaborating with the European Space Agency and other research institutes from across the world to harness the technologies to realise this possibility.
The SDGs are providing the necessary vision to focus resources and actors across society on common goals. What we need now is leadership to provide the solutions.
So, what can governments do? A step forward would be to open the door to innovative private sector solutions for sanitation by creating supportive policy environments. Such support should include standards and regulation for resource recovery from sanitation, encouraging human-waste-derived products such as energy to feed electricity grids, organic fertilisers to return nutrients to the soil, and water recycled from sanitation systems. And above all, sanitation system planning that goes beyond just building toilets, and considers ongoing operations, maintenance and improvements which include private sector solutions.
What can business do? There is mounting evidence now for companies to look beyond sanitation as a corporate social responsibility initiative. It presents many business opportunities, including new markets for innovative products and services, new consumer insights, new raw materials, renewable resources, and untapped data. Organisations including Unilever, Kimberly Clark, LIXIL and Firmenich were some of the first large corporations to see business potential in sanitation, and are already realising that value. Veolia – the Toilet Board Coalition’s newest member – is the latest business to recognise that it could gain a lot from closer engagement with the sanitation economy. As more businesses join, this momentum will only grow stronger.
Ensuring safely managed sanitation for all is proving to be one of the last frontiers of business opportunity that also addresses one of the world’s grand challenges. Let us collectively set the bar much higher so that SDG6 becomes the goal that has achieved the greatest progress at World Water Week next year.
Find out more about the Sanitation Economy at www.toiletboard.org.