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Pan-European countries come together under the Protocol on Water and Health to promote the affordability of drinking water and sanitation services


Making drinking water and sanitation services affordable for all is key to guaranteeing the human rights to drinking water and sanitation. In the human rights framework, water and sanitation services are unaffordable when paying for them would compromise the ability to pay for other essential needs that are guaranteed by human rights such as food, housing, education and health care. Affordability of drinking water and sanitation services is a concern across the pan-European region. For example, in the EU, the implementation of the recast Drinking Water Directive may increase costs, and tariffs, by 4%. Drinking water and sanitation services will remain affordable for about 95% of the population, but targeted measures will be required to protect the remaining 5%.   

Making drinking water and sanitation affordable for all is also the title of a new publication that was launched at the Regional Workshop on Equitable Access to Water and Sanitation that took place in Geneva on 13-14 June. The workshop brought together representatives from national governments, water and sanitation service providers, civil society organisations, and international agencies active in the pan-European region, as well as speakers from Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership, WaterAid, and the Water Integrity Network (WIN) that contributed their experience gained in other regions.  

The publication unpacks the concept of affordability of water and sanitation services; identifies and analyses different policy options to address affordability concerns; and describes 12 good practices around the pan-European region. Workshop participants highlighted that addressing affordability concerns requires inter-institutional coordination and a strategic approach; that affordability is a social protection issue that is best addressed through general protection measures financed by public budgets; and that responses should be well-targeted based on robust analysis. As affordability is intimately linked to the cost of providing services and the model for financing those costs, it was also highlighted that the first line of defence should be well-thought service provision that does not lead to unnecessary high costs; that affordability is affected by integrity failures that can represent a cost 4-26% of new funds, and that water polluters should pay to compensate the costs of treating water.  

The publication and the workshop are part of a programme on equitable access to water and sanitation that has been running for the last 12 years under the Protocol on Water and Health. This programme has developed guidance and tools and supported their application. It has also supported the creation of a community of practice around the Expert Group on Equitable Access to Water and Sanitation. One of the conclusions of the workshop was the need to update the equitable access scorecard, a tool first developed 10 years ago to support countries to assess progress on responding to inequities in access to water and sanitation, and that has already been applied in 12 countries.  

The workshop provided an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned from the impacts of COVID-19. Since water, sanitation and hygiene services represent the first line of defence against similar pandemics, interventions to promote equitable access to those services should be prioritised. Changes in water consumption patterns (from non-residential to residential consumption), sometimes combined with responses that reduced the tariffs for residential customers, have led to decreased revenues of service operators that responded with reductions of spending in operational and capital expenditures – these reductions in expenditures will be felt for the next decade, affecting plans for expanding services and increasing their quality. These conclusions, including the explicit treatment of hygiene-based responses (such as guidance on hygienic-sanitary measures, hygiene behaviour, availability of functional handwashing facilities, and the availability of hygiene products) will be included in an addendum to the scorecard that will be piloted in Albania and Montenegro.  

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