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Pan-European countries come together to tackle rising climate risks to water and sanitation at heart of COVID-19 recovery

MoP6 Protocol on Water and Health

How can the universal rights to water and sanitation be achieved in a region, which according to the latest World Meteorological Organization report, is heating up faster than anywhere else in the world? How can increasing the resilience of water and sanitation infrastructures be reflected in pan-European COVID-19 recovery strategies? How can we increase overall preparedness for pandemics yet to come? 

Over 250 participants gathered in Geneva today to discuss these pressing questions at the sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health. Deputy ministers, State Secretaries, and high-level representatives of water service providers from more than 20 countries addressed the impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic during the Meeting’s high-level segment. The Meeting comes on the back of a summer of extreme weather events in the pan-European region, with record-breaking heatwaves leading to droughts in numerous countries.  

As highlighted by Ms. Olga Algayerova, UNECE Executive Secretary: “In a region where 16 million people still lack access to basic drinking water and 29 million do not have basic access to sanitation services, climate change constitutes a major additional obstacle to fully realizing the human rights to water and sanitation for all”. Therefore, addressing the challenges, particularly “with a view to accelerating the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, requires a paradigm shift”, which must ensure “increasing the resilience of water and sanitation infrastructures as a major climate adaptation measure in COVID-19 recovery strategies”.  

The Meeting of the Parties thus comes at a crucial time as governments prepare for the 2023 United Nations Water Conference, which will be an essential opportunity to make commitments on water, sanitation, hygiene, and health to fully translate the human rights to water and sanitation into practice, to leave no one behind.  

Countries can utilize Protocol tools to increase resilience to climate change and future pandemics 

Mr. António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, emphasized in a written statement that “as the COVID-19 pandemic painfully demonstrated, safe water and sanitation is a cornerstone of public health systems and the first line of defence in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The Protocol on Water and Health provides governments with concrete tools to improve lives, realize the rights to water and sanitation, build resilience to climate change, and prepare for future pandemics. In doing so, it is supporting countries in their efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. I encourage you to make full use of these tools, and I urge all countries to ratify the Protocol and strive for its full implementation.” 

Following the warning of intergovernmental talks held in preparation for the session that climate change is increasingly threatening access to water and sanitation in the region, countries reaffirmed the need for scaled-up efforts through the Protocol to strengthen resilience. 

The Protocol on Water and Health, jointly serviced by UNECE and WHO/Europe, offers a set of tools and an effective intergovernmental framework to mitigate climate change impacts, such as its target-setting mechanism, which helps countries to set climate-sensitive targets to increase the resilience of their water and sanitation sectors.  

To aid future pandemic preparedness, the Meeting of the Parties will launch the latest guidance document, “Delivering Safe Sanitation for all – Areas for Action to Improve the Situation in the pan-European Region.” The publication unpacks the situation of sanitation and wastewater management in the pan-European region, describes current and emerging issues in ensuring access to safe and sustainable sanitation services, and proposes critical action areas to strengthen governance.  

The Protocol has served as a role model in ensuring safe water, sanitation, hygiene, and health 

“Through the Protocol, we have raised the profile of WASH in health-care. In 2017 we had no data; now, more than 10 countries report progress on WASH in hospitals under SDGs 3 and 6, with more coming! And we are soon publishing the first regional assessment as a scientific basis for action,” explained Mr. Hans Henri Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.  

Achievements made under the Protocol have also been reflected in its fifth reporting cycle, as Parties and other pan-European States have stated significant progress in increasing access to water and sanitation and improving drinking water quality, despite the challenges posed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Despite this progress, Mr. Kluge stated, “at the current rate of progress, we will fail to meet SDG 6.2 to ensure toilets for all by 2030”. Therefore, “we need to work four times harder and faster to get there, and the Protocol is an accelerator in closing the sanitation gap.” 

The sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health will continue discussions on a wide array of technical matters related to water and sanitation, such as environmental surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and the revision of the Equitable Access Score-card in the next two days. 

For more information on the sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health, visit:  

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