Millions of people around the world have limited access to handwashing with soap and water, but it’s a problem that can be solved relatively cheaply, provided policymakers put the work in, the World Health Organisation has said.
Providing handwashing facilities with soap and water would cost US$11 billion (AU$14.8 billion), but that’s less than the total US$11.2 billion sales of the June 2021 Amazon ‘Prime Day’ sales, the WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, noted in the ‘’ report on Friday.
Additionally, providing handwashing with soap to the 30 per cent of people who currently don’t have access would save millions of lives, the two bodies said, marking Global Handwashing Day.
Current estimates suggest 500,000 people die of diarrhoea or acute respiratory infections that can be prevented through hand hygiene, while a total of 1.6 million preventable deaths are linked to poor hand hygiene every year.
Diarrhoeal disease is also a leading cause of infant and child death.
That’s largely due to a predicted 6 billion cases of diarrhoea and 12 billion cases of helminths being avoided by 2040, reducing the burden on the healthcare system.
It would also free up a collective 77 million working days per year that girls and women spend collecting water. Providing handwashing facilities would also save US$39 billion in lost productivity, the WaterAid research claims.
Global access to handwashing with soap at home is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. However, governments will need to work four times faster to achieve this target.
“As the G20 prepares to gather, it’s time governments and donors pay attention to the fact that an investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is a life-saving investment in future health and economic prosperity,” WaterAid Australia chief executive Rosie Wheen said.
The COVID-19 pandemic put handwashing into focus. In the 60 countries most vulnerable to COVID-19 health and humanitarian crises, two thirds of the population lacked basic handwashing facilities, UNICEF warned.
“Governments should not wait for another crisis to hit the world before investing wisely in the health and well-being of people and the resilience of their economies,” Wheen said.
“Governments need to kickstart behaviour change, set out clear roadmaps for achieving hand hygiene for everyone by 2030, and ringfence the financing to achieve it.”
She added that partnerships with business will also be critical to secure supply chains for water and hand-hygiene products.
“These simple but essential facilities have been side-lined for far too long, their value overlooked, crippling economies and trapping millions – especially women and girls - in poverty and poor health,” Wheen said.
How much would it cost to save the world?
“Extreme inequality is not inevitable, but a policy choice,” Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam International, said in January.
“Governments around the world must seize this opportunity to build more equal, more inclusive economies that end poverty and protect the planet.”
Ending world hunger by 2030, which is another of the UN’s SDGs, would cost US$330 billion.
“What is needed, above all, is a change in government decision-makers’ way of thinking so they make agricultural development a priority in each country and combine investment in the food and agriculture sector with training campaigns, the development of decentralised energy systems, appropriate mechanisation, the further development of animal and plant breeding, and equal access to land ownership for women and men,” the researchers said.
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