While it is generally challenging to understand the funding landscape, with both private and public funding coming from a range of sources, some of which are not well tracked; it is safe to say that mitigating the threat of ocean wastewater pollution is grossly underfunded. This can be said with confidence because in general, when compared to a range of other social causes and philanthropic pursuits, environmental conservation takes up a tiny slice of the charitable funding pie. In a recent review of general philanthropy in 2018 and 2019 by Giving USA (2020), the majority of charitable dollars went to religion (29%), education (14%), human services (12%), grantmaking foundations (12%), and health (9%). The environment, which includes animal organizations, consistently receives about 3% of charitable gifts. A review of data from Candid’s database of all publishable grants between 2006 and 2019 showed that grants related to marine wastewater pollution averaged about $6 million annually, with about $80 million granted over that 14-year period. While these data are not all inclusive, and present many limitations, they do give a general sense of the level of attention this problem has received from philanthropic sources. The priorities include a range of strategies to improve waste management; including wastewater treatment and infrastructure, wastewater reuse, clean-up of wastewater pollution, and green infrastructure.
While community foundations and place-based funders tended to fund sanitation-related work from an environmental lens, or an urban development/improvement lens, it is clear that there is just not enough funding flowing from these sources to amount to meaningful change. This means one of two things, or perhaps both: that an effort to increase philanthropic giving around this issue would be worth pursuing, or a focus on mobilizing public funds to address this threat would yield more resources to tackle the threat. While American philanthropic giving topped $449 billion in 2019 overall (Giving USA, 2020), the problems we face are clearly much more expensive to solve. Charitable giving is not a fix-all solution. Rather it is an opportunity to catalyze important change, bring new ideas to light, and de-risk solutions that are otherwise ignored. This is one important piece of the puzzle.
However, the bigger contributor to solving these funding gaps is likely a combination of impact investing, public funding, and low-cost financing available from development banks; such as KfW Development Bank, a German bank that has consistently prioritized improving sanitation infrastructure at the global scale. For example, in 2019 alone, KfW provided around EUR 1.09 billion toward projects to address SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). In 2018, KfW partnered with the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the French development agency (AFD), to address marine debris in developing countries via a “Clean Oceans Initiative”; with a commitment to provide EUR 2 billion by 2023 to reduce the amount of plastic waste discharged into the ocean. This will have a direct impact on how much wastewater is discharged by default, since so much plastic debris makes its way to the ocean via wastewater discharges. They will focus on wastewater treatment, waste disposal and rainwater management. They are investing heavily in places like South Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America. More recently, they have welcomed other development banks to the initiative, including Instituto de Crédito Oficial (ICO) from Spain, and Cassa Depositi de Prestiti (CDP) from Italy, which will further magnify the impact these efforts will have on ocean health. The Australian state of Queensland has partnered with a national bank to create reef credits (similar to carbon credits); a creative financing mechanism to reduce coastal pollution by paying farmers not to pollute. These kind of funding opportunities and strategies have the potential to create real change. The challenge can be accessing funding for smaller countries with fewer resources, and less ability to put together a comprehensive plan, to address their sanitation and pollution mitigation needs. This is where private philanthropy can play a role as a catalyst; by providing planning funds that ultimately create the enabling conditions for countries to access game changing funding.
So, while we are seeing increases in funding that is specific to the threat of ocean wastewater pollution, it is important to consider other strategies that accomplish the same end result. For example, while the WASH sector works to solve the problem of unsafe drinking water and sanitation, when they achieve their goals; it is possible that the environment also benefits from achieving these goals, depending on the strategy employed. Partnering with the WASH sector, and making the case for using tactics that benefit both people and nature, is one way to address the threat while not needing to raise large amounts of funding. Looking for ocean wins in “non-ocean” spaces may be a very efficient and effective way to make progress across sectors. A similar opportunity likely exists around climate adaptation funding and blue carbon initiatives; especially for small island countries, and those with significant coastlines vulnerable to sea level rise. Part of the vulnerability these countries face is related to the risk of damage to sanitation infrastructure. As sanitation infrastructure is installed or improved in these areas, there is an opportunity to ensure that any new installation is “ocean friendly.” Doing so will also further increase the coastal and community resilience to climate change.