WHO/Europe and UNECE call for renewed action on water, sanitation and health in the pan-European region

In the pan-European region, diarrhoeal diseases still cause 14 deaths per day due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Renewed momentum is therefore needed to address these persistent challenges. An ambitious programme of work aimed at addressing them is to be adopted this week at the fourth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health, taking place on 14–16 November in Geneva. This meeting will feature a special high-level session to reflect on the role of the Protocol as a tool to promote and facilitate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 26 Parties to the Protocol, representing about 60% of the pan-European population, jointly supported by WHO/Europe and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), will launch work in two areas of strategic importance: increasing resilience to climate change; and water, sanitation and hygiene in schools and health care facilities.

A healthy link: the Protocol on Water and Health and the SDGs

The Protocol urges Parties to approach water, sanitation and health in a holistic manner, through a comprehensive, inclusive and accountable approach. As such, the Protocol can be used by Member States as a tool to implement the SDGs at national levels. Through improving their water, health and environmental situations, countries also support and reinforce the benefits to many other areas of development. This creates positive, interlinked and mutually supportive outcomes that reduce poverty, address inequality and promote sustainability – overarching themes of the SDGs.

Water, sanitation and hygiene in schools is vital for children

Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene in schools can compromise pupils’ education, health and well-being. WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, notes, “For all children, a healthy learning environment is a prerequisite for a decent life, and yet a considerable proportion of children in the pan-European region still attend schools that do not provide adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services. The health and education sectors will need to work harder together if we are to achieve SDGs 4 and 6, creating effective learning environments and safe water and sanitation for all. Both goals are also closely linked to SDG 3, on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages”.

At the Meeting of the Parties, WHO/Europe and UNECE are launching two new publications that both advocate for policy-makers of all involved sectors to prioritize this area of work and present sound evidence for informed policy action.

Nearly a quarter of Europeans rely on small-scale systems

Approximately 23% of the population of the WHO European Region receive their drinking water from small-scale systems. Such systems are more vulnerable to contamination. Two more publications being launched at the Meeting of the Parties highlight the range of instruments available to improve small-scale water supply and sanitation systems, as well as presenting the latest assessment of such systems within the Region.

Latest evidence on water-related diseases in Europe published

Of all possible water-related disease outbreaks investigated in the WHO European Region, 18% were  confirmed to be caused by contaminated water. The prevention and reduction of water-related diseases has been a priority area under the Protocol’s programme of work for 2014–2016. A review published this week by WHO/Europe and UNECE of the available evidence reveals significant underreporting and underestimation of the true extent of water-related diseases in the pan-European region, indicating a need to strengthen national capacities for surveillance of these diseases.

Inequities in access to water and sanitation need to be addressed

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation have been recognized as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. In order to support Member States in complying with this obligation, UNECE and WHO/Europe have published guidance for the development of action plans to achieve equitable access to water and sanitation.

Implementation is driven forward by target setting and reporting

All Parties to the Protocol are required to set targets and target dates to improve the water and health situation in their countries, and to collect and evaluate data and information on progress. “All countries have made progress towards the targets they have set and many have reached them. This means in practice increased access to water and sanitation, improved quality of drinking water, enhanced treatment of waste waters, better quality of water resources and improved health of citizens in the pan-European region. These efforts must be sustained in order to close the remaining gaps in access to water and sanitation and protect our precious water resources,” notes Christian Friis Bach, UNECE Executive Secretary.

In the light of the extensive experience accumulated by Parties and other States over the past 10 years, the Task Force on Target Setting and Reporting under the Protocol has published good practices and lessons learnt during the process to provide practical guidance to countries, as well as reporting on the progress achieved.