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World Food Day: Celebrating the link between nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene

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By Gerda Verburg, UN Assistant Secretary General and Coordinator, SUN Movement and Catarina Albuquerque, first UN Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation and SWA Chief Executive Officer


The connection between kitchen and toilet might be an unsavory one, but it is actually a life or death matter. This is why, this World Food Day we are putting a special focus on the connect between nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene. Because as access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is essential for humans to absorb nutrients. Access to water, sanitation and hygiene remains inadequate in almost every SUN country, it continues to pose a barrier to ending malnutrition by 2030.

After all, guaranteeing access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is essential for humans to absorb nutrients. This is particularly critical in a child’s first 1,000 days – from conception, until the age of two – when they are most vulnerable to adverse effects of undernutrition, potentially leading to irreversible damages in their health and learning skills. Globally, around half of the burden of child undernutrition is due to inadequate sanitation and hygiene. A break in the nutrition-hygiene link can already damage a child’s development when still in the womb. If the mother does not absorb nutrients properly during pregnancy it can lead to premature birth, which increases the probability of future stunting. Poor access to safe drinking water can also mean that mothers dedicate less time to exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of life and continue breastfeeding thereafter up to age 2, a proven way to increase early-childhood nutrition. The United Nations estimates that worldwide, women and girls spend 200 million hours – daily – collecting water.

It is no coincidence that the people suffering from food and nutrition insecurity are often the same who lack access to water, sanitation and hygiene – they are the “ones left behind”. To reach them and ensure their sustainable enjoyment to these human rights is not just a matter of building toilets or producing the most nutritious food. It is about the invisible things that meaningfully address inequalities and discrimination around the world. We are talking about political leadership, good governance, planning and budgeting, transparency, accountability, participation, and collaboration between all the actors involved in the value chain.

This was why the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (SUN) and Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership were born. Our missions: under the governments’ leadership, and with the support of other partners (civil society, private sector, UN agencies, academia), drive collaboration for a world free from malnutrition in all its forms, and where all have access to water, sanitation and hygiene always, and everywhere. The two multi-stakeholder partnerships recognized early the interdependence of their work. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have stimulated much debate on how to deliver better integration across sectors to maximise impact, drive cost-effectiveness and improve sustainability. New partnerships and innovations for development are urgently needed to deliver on this ambitious agenda. Despite the rhetoric of the need for greater integration and understanding, what this looks like in practice is challenging and have been bringing SUN and SWA partners together to integrate the two areas. The priority is to ensure that, in their partners countries. Water, sanitation and hygiene programmes recognize their potential effect on nutrition, and that nutrition initiatives do include Water, sanitation and hygiene components. Many countries, such as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nepal and others are already making progress on implementing multi-sectoral approaches to connect nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene.

As we celebrate World Food Day in 2019, we look forward to the opportunities ahead to increase political will around water, sanitation and hygiene-Nutrition integration and get governments and their partners to table and follow through on actionable commitments. The Nutrition for Growth Summit, to be hosted by the government of Japan in Tokyo in 2020, will provide a great platform for SUN countries and others to make ambitious commitments in tackling malnutrition in a multisectoral and integrative way. The SWA Mutual Accountability Mechanism already saw 50 governments and their partners table 159 commitments, which will be reported on through 2020. In April 2020 SWA will organize a Finance Ministers’ Meeting to make the business case for investment in multisectoral approach for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6. In a few weeks, the SUN Global Gathering will work as a springboard to strengthen collaborative action.

The success of our “partnership of partnerships” – and achieving the SDGs – will depend on how well we commit to this agenda of collaborating.

Blog originally published on the Sanitation and Water for All website, visit here.

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