Profit or Poverty? The democratic imperative for water, sanitation and hygiene for all

How can we ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all? Banner image: Shutterstock/PradeepGaurs

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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We are halfway through the timeframe we gave ourselves to meet the Sustainable Development Goals—and in particular SDG 6, Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all — but we have completed barely a quarter of the journey we committed to. In other words, we can achieve it, but we need to pick up the pace. However, simply proclaiming it is not enough. If we are to meet SDG6, we need to clearly identify the goals to be met, the nature and roots of the problems to be tackled and the forces that have or should have a real stake in pushing for it. Only then can we work out what to do to activate those capacities.

For me, as UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, at the heart of SDG 6 are the 2.2 billion people without guaranteed access to safe drinking water and the 4.2 billion who do not have access to basic sanitation. We are talking about billions of people who have one characteristic in common—that of being extremely impoverished—but in the context of these people’s lives, two types of scenarios open up. On the one hand, we must consider scenarios with real and growing physical shortages of water, in arid and semi-arid areas likely to become uninhabitable in the not too distant future due to the ongoing climate crisis. On the other, most of those 2.2 billion people do have water in their living environments—but contaminated water. They are not properly thirsty, but rather impoverished and living next to polluted rivers, springs and aquifers, on which they depend for their daily water supply.

In short, restoring aquatic ecosystems is the most reasonable, cost-effective way to ensure drinking water for these billions of people, even though their extreme poverty offers zero chance of making anyone any profit.

Read more on the Forum Network: Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-Based Solutions, by Robert Brears, Founder, Our Future Water

There are many actors that could drive the achievement of SDG 6: the affected people themselves, states, public financial institutions, potential private financial and business actors interested in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services. But it is those whose human rights are disregarded that are undoubtedly the most concerned. Building bridges of dialogue and permanent collaboration with impoverished peoples and communities through their organisations, social movements and NGOs working on the ground is a necessity. Within this connecting framework, recognising and empowering women and human rights defenders is fundamental because they are the ones most interested in facing this challenge—and with the most to lose.

As far as states, financial institutions and business actors are concerned, the “austerity strategies” following the 2008 global financial crisis led to financial gaps in WASH services that had to be filled by the private sector (I believe these strategies were misnamed: austerity, as a virtue, avoids unnecessary expenditures without sacrificing essential needs). However, after the lived and current experience of COVID-19, everything is very different. The pandemic is being treated as a global health crisis with huge public funds allocated not only to combat it, but also for much-needed socio-economic recovery through the so-called "Green New Deal" of the 21st century. The severity of the pandemic has laid bare our individual and collective vulnerability, imposing the motto of “leaving no one behind” as an inescapable principle—not only for reasons of humanity and justice, but also to simply control the virus. Strengthening public health systems now enjoys an unprecedented consensus, over and above partisan and ideological choices.

Water and sanitation services must be integrated into this same consensus as a cornerstone of public health: meeting SDG 6 is a democratic imperative. It is unacceptable today to hide behind a “financial gap” as was done in 2008. Opening this space up to business and private initiatives condemns it once more to domination by financial capital, playing out according to speculative logics and expectations that have little to do with those billions of impoverished people. Taking up the challenge of strengthening public health systems—and in particular water and sanitation services—is, I insist, a democratic imperative that requires the investment of significant post-COVID public funds.

The pandemic has forced us to consider strengthening and empowering the World Health Organization more than ever and at a global level. So too, the role and capacities of the United Nations through UN-Water must be strengthened, so that the proposals and recommendations to states and international financial institutions become effective guidelines for public policies to address the Global Water Crisis.

With half of our time gone and three-quarters of the way still to go, this is not simply about planning water supplies. This is about ensuring affordable drinking water and sanitation services for billions of people living in poverty.

Find out more about the OECD's work on water

Find out more about the OECD's work on water

Read the 2021 OECD report The role of intermediaries to facilitate water-related investment, which analyses 3 specific sub-sectors: utilities, small scale water and sanitation service providers and nature-based solutions

Related Topics

SDGs Income Inequality Health Green Recovery Tackling COVID-19

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo

Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mr. Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in September 2020 and started his mandate on 1 November 2020. Previously, from 2016 to 2019, Arrojo-Agudo served as an elected member (MP) of the Spanish Parliament during its eleventh and twelfth legislature, during which he was part of the International Cooperation Committee working on human rights. Arrojo-Agudo was Professor in the Area of Fundamentals of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza (1989-2011), and has been professor emeritus since 2011.

In 2002, Arrojo-Agudo co-founded the New Water Culture Foundation (NWCF), an Iberian non-profit organization with more than 200 members from academia, public administration and stakeholders in the water sector, which aims to promote a change towards a new water culture. The NWCF focuses particularly on human rights, transparency and public participation in water and aquatic ecosystems management and planning. As the President of the NWCF, he coordinated the first two Iberian Congress on Water Planning and Management (held in Zaragoza in 1998 and in Oporto in 2000) and the Latin American Conference for the New Culture of Water (held in Fortaleza, Brazil, 2005). Arrojo-Agudo is also the co-founder of the Public Water Network (RAP) as part of Aqua Pública Europea (the European association of public water operators), that promotes the human right to water and sanitation in the EU with initiatives such as the Right2Water.

In 2003, Arrojo-Agudo was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his contributions to conservation of water ecosystems and his involvement in water conflicts that affect human rights of communities in vulnerable situations. From 1997 to 2010 he was a member of the Spanish Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program (MAB).  

Arrojo-Agudo has a degree in Physical Sciences and a Ph.D. in Fluid Engineering. During the last three decades, he has focused his research on economics and water management, publishing his work in more than 100 scientific articles and in 70 books.