What does water have to do with work? In Malawi, plenty

Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization

Carlos Carrion-Crespi, Specialist for public services and utilities sectors

Recently I travelled to Malawi to discuss jobs and water with Ministers, worker and employer groups. While there, I recalled that on World Water Day this year the President of the country, Peter Mutharika, was one of a number of heads of state who gave international recognition to the links between employment, development and managing our scarce water resources.

“Provision of potable water and good sanitation will directly result in poverty reduction as healthy people contribute to the development of the country (Malawi),” he told an audience in Malawi’s second city Mzuzu, on March 22.

For Malawi, which has suffered drought and problems with water supply to its major cities, the linkages between jobs and water were apparent in many ways. In Malawi women and girls spend much of their day simply fetching water. A lack of sanitation infrastructure means that people are forced to defecate openly in fields and plantations.

My trip also brought home to me just how integrated are Sustainable Development Goal 6 – universal access to clean water and to sanitation, and Goal 8 – decent work and inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

Progress towards transformation of our world

Either of these Goals will necessarily impact on the other. For example, investing in infrastructure in the rural areas will not only improve water supply and sanitation, but also reduce the burden of fetching water on women and girls, which improves their quality of life and frees their time and energy for other tasks, like agriculture or education.

Clearly in Malawi’s case such investment will also support the achievement of SDG No. 5 to ensure gender equality. This is particularly true if we also provide women with the opportunity to participate in the governance of the provision of water and sanitation, and take into account their experience with water sources. These actions could help to set the conditions for a virtuous cycle empowering women to contribute to sustainable economic growth.

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Open defecation is also a work-related problem in plantations and mines, where workers often live in housing provided by the owner. If the employers provide adequate sanitation facilities in these dwellings, they will not only improve their quality of life: but reduced illness and improved working conditions will boost productivity.

Clean water for decent work

I have the privilege of participating on behalf of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the WASH4Work initiative, where several UN agencies and enterprises promote the goal of universal provision of safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the workplace. The ILO has promoted many international standards on occupational safety and health, and now includes WASH as one of the elements workers need to preserve decent work, and work with dignity.

The adoption of the sustainable development goals was a step in the right direction. Through taking an integrated approach, the international community and actors at the national level can make faster progress towards the achievement of these goals. Countries like Malawi, which in recent years has shown impressive growth but still has many challenges ahead, stand to benefit.

We can move closer to realising the 2030 Agenda when we understand the enhanced impact of working on multiple goals at once.

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