The Water Decade

Posted: 17 January 2001

Author: John Bland

"Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" This advice, given by the Queen to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, unfortunately summed up the position of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, 1981-1990 (IDWSSD).

On 10 November 1980, the UN General Assembly proclaimed that the primary goal envisaged for the Decade was the attainment of full access to water supply and to sanitation by all inhabitants in the developing countries by the year 1990. According to official UN estimates, about 75 per cent of urban populations and 34 per cent of rural populations in the developing world had access to safe water supplies, while 60 per cent in the cities and 31 per cent in the countryside had sanitation facilities; in other words, some 1,700 million lacked a water supply and over 1,900 million were without sanitation. Since 80 per cent of all diseases are linked with unsafe water - the number of water taps per 100,000 population are a better indicator of health than the number of hospital beds.

At the end of the Decade, according to the IDWSSD's own End of Decade Review (as at December 1990), it had provided access for an estimated total of 1,200 million people to safe water supplied, and sanitation facilities for some 770 million.

Dirty water

This was no mean achievement. Yet today an estimated 1,100 million people still lack safe water and 2,400 million have inadequate sanitation. The resulting human toll is roughly 3,300 million cases of illness and two million deaths every year. According to forecasts, two-thirds of humanity will face shortages of clean water by 2025, and the world will also need better water management to grow food for an addition 2,000 million inhabitants¹.

Since the Decade ended, the percentage of people served with some form of improved water supply rose from 79 per cent (4,100 million) in 1990 to 82 per cent (4,900 million) in 2000. Over the same period, the proportion of the world's population with access to excreta disposal facilities increased from 55 per cent (2,900 million people) to 60 per cent (3,600 million). These results can only described as meagre².

Indeed, the rapidly rising population, together with the low level of public awareness about health, were the major factors that combined to defeat the idealistic goals of the Decade and the efforts of the succeeding ten years. At present, hopes for improvement are centred on the World Water Assessment Programme, a joint effort of the UN system and its member states, which will include a biennial assessment of the state of global freshwater resources, starting in 2002.

Let us hope that this initiative will produce better year-on-year results. The lessons of the recent past suggest that International Decades, Years and Days have only a short-lived effect and that, once they are over, the world returns to its complacent acceptance of the status quo.

John Bland is former Editor of WHO's magazine World Health.

1. UN World Water Development Report.

2. WHO/UNICEF/Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council,
Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report.