The beginning of March saw the world celebrate International Women’s Day, while March 22nd's World Water Day inevitably suffered from the ongoing fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic with events, activities and conferences all cancelled.
It’s an ironic turn of events as women, water and epidemics actually have a lot in common. Because restricted access to water, sanitation and hygiene is an issue that has a disproportionately large effect on women and also on the spread of disease.
Every day women will spend 200 million hours collecting water.¹ What’s more, collectively, millions of women also spend up to 266 million hours each day simply finding a toilet, because they have no place to go at home.² The effects of this are felt throughout communities.
Women are prevented from working in order to prioritise finding enough water for their families. The water they are forced to collect may not be clean and lack of sanitation and ‘on-tap’ hygiene both effect long and short term health prospects.
This is never more evident that in cases of epidemic. The best advice the WHO and senior health chiefs across the world have to offer is to wash hands often with soap and clean water. If that’s not readily available, then the consequences can be severe.
But it’s not just access to water for washing hands that matters. The Ebola crisis in West Africa demonstrated that the demand for clean water in hospitals and makeshift medical facilities increased dramatically and one of the first tasks of aid workers was to ensure a supply of fresh, clean water was available.
Why World Water Day counts
Research is increasingly showing that consumers are searching for brands and retailers who share their concerns about social and environmental causes. Accenture’s 2019 US Annual Holiday Local Shopping Survey found that 47% of shoppers said it was extremely important or very important for retailers to demonstrate environmental awareness when it comes to deciding which retailers to shop with during the holidays.
Jill Standish, Senior Managing Director and Head of Accenture’s Global Retail Practice, said “We have entered the ‘era of responsible retail,’ where consumers are becoming more environmentally and socially conscious and will increasingly turn to brands that not only talk about responsibility but demonstrate it through their business practices.”³
And that brings us back to World Water Day. A core focus of the day is to support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. The day – and the events leading up to it -celebrate the essential role of water and raises awareness of the 1 in 10 people (785 million) who still lack basic water services, including the 144 million who drink untreated surface water.⁴
These are the issues that consumers want to see retailers taking a more active role in. Likewise the UN and governments around the world want to see retailers and the private sector in general stepping up to take a more active role in delivering sustainable, circular solutions that help to both finance and deliver the SDGs.
At the moment most of the focus is on voluntary commitments, but pressure is mounting on governments to step in and legislate to ensure retailers and manufacturers meet their obligations. Shareholders too can see which way the wind is blowing and are becoming more active in their demands for businesses to put more emphasis on ESG in order to maintain share prices and market position.
The current Coronavirus crisis will inevitably mean the focus of consumers shift somewhat. At the moment the images dominating the media are of panic buying - and environmental and social concerns seem to be abandoned. But this will not always be the case. The crisis will pass and then governments, consumers, NGOs and charities will focus on what lessons it has in relation to the SDGs and the resilience of marginalised communities faced with challenges that even advanced nations buckled under.
The UN World Water Development Report which is released on World Water Day recommends policy directions to political decision makers which will be even more relevant in light of the Coronavirus. It’s key messages include acting now, considering waste as part of the solution, improving water management practices, ensuring transboundary cooperation and rethinking finance.
Finance will be a key issue, as the Coronavirus seems set to plunge the world into a short sharp recession. That’s why it is of particular interest to Water Unite, as rethinking finance in a simple, achievable and unobtrusive way is what we are trying to achieve with our micro levy of 1 cent for every 1 little of bottled water purchased. This innovative model leverages funds raised via an investment vehicle and then channels money into sustainable water projects that benefit whole communities.
The UN report sums up the benefits concisely “…finance for water resource management and sanitation supports community climate resilience and job creation at the local level, and helps to improve sustainable development outcomes. Innovative, blended finance solutions for water and climate can help to leverage climate investment across the economy. Barriers to increased access to climate finance, such as lack of capacity and lack of institutional coordination, must be urgently addressed.”
We couldn’t agree more. We see our micro levy as an ideal nexus where retail, political and consumer interests intersect to deliver funding for a range of entrepreneurial projects that provide sustainable, circular and long-term WASH solutions that will change communities and give them the resilience to combat future epidemics.
² Unilever Domestos, WaterAid and WSSCC (2013). Why we can’t wait: A report on sanitation and hygiene for women and girls.