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The Protocol on Water and Health, a crucial tool for delivering water, sanitation and hygiene for all during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the extent to which water, sanitation and hygiene are key to human health through frequent handwashing, in the UNECE region over 16 million people still lack access to drinking water and more than 31 million are currently living without basic sanitation. These alarming figures stress the need to improve and strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and health-related policies in the region. The 1999 Protocol on Water and Health, a unique, legally binding intergovernmental agreement jointly serviced by UNECE and the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, can be a useful instrument in supporting countries in this regard, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On 6 November 2020, a special briefing on the Protocol on Water and Health was organized for  Permanent Missions in Geneva. The event provided an opportunity to discuss more in depth how the Protocol’s platform and tools support countries in advancing the national water, sanitation, hygiene and health agenda, stimulate coordinated action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the human rights to water and sanitation, and prepare for and recover from infectious disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19. Attended by more than 50 participants, including permanent mission representatives from over 20 countries, this information session also aimed to showcase the Protocol’s concrete impacts and added value in the countries of the pan-European region, both at the policy and the technical levels.

As stated by Mr. Martin Zbinden, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the World Trade Organization and the European Free Trade Association (UNECE, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, International Trade Centre): “the Protocol on Water and Health … gives a practical framework for realizing the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation … Undoubtedly, the effective implementation of the Protocol plays an important role in … achieving the relevant Sustainable Development Goal[s], in particular [Sustainable] Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation”. The practicality of the Protocol was also highlighted by UNECE Executive Secretary Ms. Olga Algayerova, who recalled that “Long before the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights, the Protocol already required its Parties to provide access to drinking water and sanitation for everyone” through its universality and equity dimensions that made it a precursor of Sustainable Development Goal 6.

Serving as a hub for technical and policy developments on water, sanitation, hygiene and health in the region, the Protocol allows countries of the pan-European region to exchange experiences, build partnerships and share water, sanitation and hygiene data across sectors.  While highlighting the urgent need to further prioritize universal access to WASH, Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, qualified the Protocol, in his video address, as the “prime European platform to organize our joint response to close the persistent gaps in WASH in the region”- helping countries to make governance for health and well-being a priority, for more than just the health sector alone.

Indeed, bringing together the environment and health communities, the Protocol aims to protect human health and well-being through sustainable water management and by preventing, controlling and reducing water-related diseases. It supports countries in setting and reporting on specific targets, providing “a robust framework to support Governments in meeting their commitments to deal with the current crisis and to put in place the necessary measures to pre-empt and manage any future crisis”, as recalled in the video address by Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, Chief Executive Officer of Sanitation and Water for All and former Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. The Protocol indeed offers a space to exchange and share good practices to address and recover from COVID-19 challenges. As an example, the eleventh meeting of the Task Force on Target-Setting and Reporting (Geneva, 3 November 2020) organized a session for countries to exchange on WASH-related measures taken in the COVID-19 context.

In addition to improving governance and accountability on water and health, the Protocol also provides practical tools and methodologies, combined with access to the expert community, to build capacity on water, sanitation, hygiene and health at the community, national and regional levels. During the session, representatives of Belarus, Finland, Norway, Serbia and Switzerland presented concrete impacts and added values  experienced from the Protocol, such as the possibility to assess and address specific issues – for example, inequities in access to water and sanitation – using the Equitable Access Score-card.

Lastly, it was highlighted that the Protocol’s guidance documents can also be used to implement relevant European Union policies such as the recent proposed revision of the Drinking Water Directive, which recognizes that European Union member States could make use of the guidance documents developed under the remit of the Protocol to assess the policy background and the baseline situation on access to water and define the necessary actions to improve equitable access for all.

Under its programme of work for 20202022, the Protocol offers support for country activities on several issues such as: ensuring equitable access to water and sanitation; preventing and reducing water-related diseases; improving WASH in schools and health-care facilities; small-scale water supplies and sanitation; and safe and efficient management of water supply and sanitation systems.

More information on the Protocol and its activities is available at www.unece.org/env/water/pwh_text/text_protocol.html.