Why Businesses Need to Embrace WASH

Globally, it is estimated that more than 1.8 billion people are lack dependable access to clean water and more than 4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, putting them at risk of disease (WBCSD, 2016). In Indonesia, according to the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) monitoring program conducted by UNICEF and WHO (JMP, 2015),  51 million Indonesian people still practice open defecation including in the capital city of Jakarta, 72% of Indonesian people still rely on poor quality traditional water sources for drinking purpose.

Clearly it’s shocking, as even in Jakarta, the overall sanitation level is still very poor. The deaths and illnesses caused by water borne diseases are clearly uncalled for as they are all preventable, if only people have the knowledge and understanding of proper hygiene practices, as simple as proper handwashing with soap, as it can already reduce the risk of diarrhoea diseases by 42 to 47 percent. 

Sadly, this issue is rarely openly discussed in Indonesia, at least not since I started working here 17 years ago on WASH development projects. Naturally, due to this  lack of awareness on WASH, there is a misperception amongst businesses that WASH is only related to water companies and infrastructure, thus not strategic enough for their business as it doesn’t really affect theirs. While on the contrary, some case studies show that access to safe WASH – especially sanitation and hygiene – can even be an issue in high-income countries. Let alone in Indonesia,  listed as one of the top 5 countries with poor hygiene and bad sanitation, which cost the country’s budget around IDR 56 trillion or 2.3% of GDP for medical expenses to treat water-borne diseases (UNICEF issue briefs, 2012) . So the fact of the matter is, we are all affected. Despite our economic status, education background and even hygiene practices, our health is still at risk when the overall sanitation and hygiene of the country is really poor.  

herefore WASH is everybody’s business. It is not only about infrastructures as people often perceive, but the most important of all, it’s about behavioural change effort, thus I believe WASH can easily be implemented through private sector’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts, regardless their core businesses or interests. I understand there are various reasons behind company’s choice of CSR programs. What many companies might not realize – WASH issues – although not as “popular” as sending kids to school or planting thousands of trees – are actually relevant and started to become a strategic importance to all businesses, especially after the United Nations stated that WASH is the issue of human rights and it’s one of the goals in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The business case to involve in water and sanitation is strong: First, rapid urbanisation and population growth increases competition for a limited supply of water. Consequently, a real or perceived mismanagement of this resource adds to the risk of conflict with local communities which can cause business loss; like the case of a consumer goods company which was closed by authorities as it’s accused of extracting too much groundwater. Second, practicing proper WASH behaviour has the potential to reduce employee’s absenteeism due to illnesses. Third, the provision of clean water can be fundamental to business growth. Unilever has stated that making water, sanitation and hygiene commonplace offers a market opportunity for them as well as a human development one (The Guardian, 2015)

That being said, I believe the companies will benefit both internally and externally with the implementation of WASH. Internally, investing in safe WASH at the workplace means a healthier and more productive workforce. Externally, businesses can embark on CSR activities surrounding their business operations such as providing hygiene education in schools, community-based sanitation and household water treatment, those are some of the affordable and feasible programs that all businesses can do together with the government and NGOs. Additional tangible business benefits include: increased brand value, lower reputational risks and more secured social license to operate, expanded and more vibrant markets and demonstration of leadership in supporting global objectives as mentioned in SDGs.

It is relieving to learn that several companies in Indonesia have started their WASH-based CSR programs. IKEA and Indomaret utilize some of their profit to the betterment of sanitation surrounding their business operations, from hygiene education including the provision of handwashing stations in schools to community sanitation improvement. If more companies follow their leads and have increased awareness on WASH, their businesses will be more sustainable and at the same time it will support the Indonesian government agenda to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2019.

At last, your business can also be a part of this WASH global movement. By signing the WASH Pledge, part of the Action2020 framework led by World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), you will learn best practices in WASH and you can even demonstrate and communicate your companies’ good leadership in WASH.

Let’s make WASH our business. For better and healthier Indonesia.

Claire Quillet is a former UNICEF WASH Specialist and currently running her own CSR consultancy firm, PT Towards Sustainable Businesses (TSB).