15/03/2016 10:00 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Sanitation and Water for All of Us

Every day more than 800 children around the world die from diarrhea.

2.4 billion people lack access to a basic toilet.

663 million people still use water contaminated by human waste and other pollutants.

Nearly 40% of health care facilities in low and middle-income countries lack any water supply, and poor sanitation causes over a quarter million deaths annually.

Numbers of such magnitude almost lose meaning - but these are babies, only weeks old; mothers and fathers; teenagers; the elderly; families just like yours stripped of health and dignity and often their lives.

In addition, if you prefer the numbers, lost working days due to poor sanitation cost the global economy approximately $4 billion per year. As water demand grows from rising agriculture, industrial, and domestic consumption, more than half the global population will likely be living in water-stressed areas by 2025.

As formidable as these water challenges are, there has been real progress over past decades.

2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990, meeting the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the number of people without safe drinking water.

By 2015 almost 70% of the world's population had access to at least a basic toilet or latrine - compared to less than 55% in 1990.

These advances are unfortunately marred by stark inequalities in access to water and sanitation between rural and better-served urban areas, and within cities between slum-dwellers and their wealthier neighbors.

This complex picture of global water and sanitation - in which progress balances precariously against the ongoing needs of large swathes of the global community - requires redoubling our efforts to fill the gaps that remain after generations of development efforts.

Much work is being done.

To advance coordinated national action, the UN Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank earlier this year launched a High Level Panel on Water, made up of heads of state from water-stressed countries around the world. In the roughly 47 countries where less than half the population has access to a toilet, UN agencies such as UNICEF, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as WaterAid, work to support government-led programmes to improve sanitation and hygiene.

Philanthropic efforts from the Gates Foundation seek to build markets for 'radically' new sanitation technologies, while the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation helps provide clean water to far flung villages in West Africa.

Large corporations such as Coca-Cola and Unilever seek water neutrality in their operations and offer grants to enhance water provision in developing countries.

Engineering and technological firms from IBM to the Indian startup Ekam are meanwhile developing new methods for managing rivers and catchments, treating wastewater, and providing cheaper more efficient sanitation solutions.

The Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership, of which I am Chair, brings together governments, NGOs, the private sector and international agencies to support communities seeking to close the water and sanitation gap between rich and poor. The upcoming Meeting of Ministers of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Addis Ababa will provide an opportunity to further this work in concrete ways.

The collaborative efforts of all these actors collectively have the potential to feed into the ambitious targets put forth by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Like the MDGs before them, the SDGs establish a normative foundation from which all parties can build. They are also measurable, with review processes currently being developed that will show us where we are and what remains to be done.

SDG Goal 6 is clear: ensure the sustainable access to water and sanitation for all by 2030.

In this pursuit, Goal 6 calls for ending open defecation, reducing pollution, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, and increasing water recycling and efficient use. It compels countries to improve protections of watersheds and pay special attention to the needs of women and girls made vulnerable by water access shortcomings.

Goal 6 charges the international community to implement integrated water resources management at all levels, cooperate on transboundary water issues, and build capacities in developing countries. It also has implications for all countries, no matter what their economic status. Middle- and high-income countries are obliged to ensure access to all people: a particular challenge considering the needs of homeless, economically marginalised, and refugee populations. Such access must also be sustainable, and in continuous supply even in times of natural or man-made disasters.

Realizing SDG Goal 6 requires us to find practical policy, technical and financial solutions that are tailored to specific local water and sanitation challenges.

Coordination is needed to galvanize governments, NGOs, intergovernmental leaders, and private sector innovators with a common purpose: bringing SDG Goal 6 within reach of vulnerable communities the world over.

Once pursued, these efforts will prove to be below-cost, high-reward propositions in which upfront investments of financial and human resources yield enormous longer term gains. A World Health Organization (WHO) study calculated that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, there was a return of at least $4 in lower health costs, more productivity, and fewer premature deaths.

It is up to participants across the whole field of water and sanitation to drive these high returns and pursue measurable progress.

The time to embark on this journey is now.

I urge you to join us.