UN drinking water target met - but sanitation still falls short

Posted: 3 April 2012

Author: Kanaga Raja, Third World Network Features

The world has met the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water five years ahead of the 2015 deadline - but is unlikely to meet the sanitation target.

According to a report by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, between 1990 and 2010, over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells. By 2015, an estimated 92 per cent of the global population will have access to improved drinking water.

On a negative note, the report says that the world is unlikely to meet the MDG sanitation target. Only 63 per cent of the world now have improved sanitation access, a figure projected to increase only to 67 per cent by 2015, well below the 75 per cent aim in the MDGs.

Water progress chart

One of the targets of MDG No. 7 is halving by 2015 the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

"Today, we recognize a great achievement for the people of the world. This is one of the first MDG targets to be met. The successful efforts to provide greater access to drinking water are a testament to all who see the MDGs not as a dream, but as a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people," says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In a foreword to the joint report, Ban says: "Of course, much work remains to be done. There are still 780 million people without access to an improved drinking water source. And even though 1.8 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, the world remains off track for the sanitation target."

According to the joint UNICEF/WHO report, the MDG drinking water target has been reached: Over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources from 1990 to 2010, and the proportion of the global population still using unimproved sources is estimated at only 11 per cent.

This is less than half of the 24 per cent estimated for 1990, says the report, adding that almost 6.1 billion people or 89 per cent of the world's population, were using an improved water source in 2010.

"The drinking water target has thus become one of the first MDG targets to be met," it stresses, cautioning however that while this tremendous achievement should be applauded, a great deal of work remains.

Schoolgirl drinking from rainwater tank, Nairobi
A schoolgirl in Nairobi, Kenya, drinking from a water tank that collects rain from the schoolhouse roof. Water is a threatened resource and with population growth and expanding urbanization the pressure can only increase. Photo © WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

For instance, while coverage of improved water supply sources is 90 per cent or more in Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern Africa and large parts of Asia, it is only 61 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Coverage in the developing world overall stands at 86 per cent, but it is only 63 per cent in countries designated as "least developed".

Similar disparities are found within countries - between the rich and poor and between those living in rural and urban areas.

The report also notes that complete information about drinking water safety is not available for global monitoring. Systematically testing the microbial and chemical quality of water at the national level in all countries is prohibitively expensive and logistically complicated.

Although the MDG drinking water target has been met, the report says that it only calls for halving the proportion of people without safe drinking water. More than one tenth of the global population still relied on unimproved drinking water sources in 2010.

On the number of people who have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990, the report finds that the progress of India and China not only dominates their respective regions, but represents nearly half of the global progress towards the drinking water target.

Though they are on track to reach the target, China and India combined are still home to 216 million people without access to improved water supplies. This represents 28 percent of the global population that remains unserved.

The report points to stark disparities between urban and rural coverage. An estimated 96% of the urban population globally used an improved water supply source in 2010, compared to 81 percent of the rural population.

Similarly, 80% of the world's urban population had piped water connections, compared to only 29% of people in rural areas.

In urban areas, the rate of increase in piped water on premises has stagnated over the last 20 years. The rate of increase has been higher in rural areas, but coverage remains low.

Washing hands: schoolchildren in Vietnam
Hand-washing prevents sickness: schoolchildren in Vietnam. Photo © UNICEF/HQ99-0812/Lemoyne

According to UNICEF/WHO, though it is unlikely that the world will meet the MDG sanitation target by 2015, encouraging progress is being made. Globally, 63 per cent of the population use improved sanitation facilities, an increase of almost 1.8 billion people since 1990. This means that we are within 10 per cent of being ‘on track'. At current rates of progress, we will reach 67 per cent coverage in 2015, better than previous projections but still far from the 75 per cent needed to reach the target."

The report underlines that unless the pace of change in the sanitation sector can be accelerated, the MDG target may not be reached until 2026. In 2010, an estimated 2.5 billion people were still without improved sanitation.

"Many countries are off track in meeting the MDG sanitation target, including much of sub-Saharan Africa and several of the most populous countries in Asia," the report notes.

The report highlights progress in China and India since these two countries represent such a large proportion of their regional populations. While China has contributed to more than 95% of the progress in Eastern Asia, the same is not true for India in Southern Asia.

Together, China and India contributed just under half of the global progress towards the MDG target in sanitation. One third of the 2.5 billion people without improved sanitation live in India.

The report underscores that the disparities in rural and urban sanitation are even more pronounced than those in drinking water supply. Globally, 79 per cent of the urban population use an improved sanitation facility, compared to 47 per cent of the rural population.

In rural areas, 1.8 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, representing 72 per cent of the global total of those unserved. However, a great deal of progress has been made in rural areas since 1990: 724 million rural dwellers have gained access to improved sanitation while the number of people unserved in urban areas has grown by 183 million.


Third World Network Features.