On track for the modest water goal

Posted: 25 September 2008

As world leaders meet at the UN headquarers in New York to review progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, half way to the target date of 2015, the good news for millions is that the drinking water target - to reduce by half the proportion of people - without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 - is on track. Contributing editor John Madeley reports.

Eighty-seven per cent of the world's population now has a safe drinking water source, compared to 77 per cent in 1990. The number of people without access to drinking water has dropped below one billion for the first time since records began, to stand at 884 million.

Schoolgirl drinking from rainwater tank, Nairobi
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
Around 54 per cent of people now use a piped connection in their home, plot or yard, and 33 per cent uses other improved drinking water sources. "This translates into 5.7 billion people worldwide who are now using drinking water from an improved source, an increase of 1.6 billion since 1990", says a recent report by the monitoring programme for drinking-water and sanitation of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

According to the report. "Current trends suggest that more than 90 per cent of the global population will use improved drinking water sources by 2015....most countries are now on track to achieve the MDG water target, except in sub-Saharan Africa".

The regional figures for safe water coverage are impressive. Since 1990 all regions report gains except Oceania, says the report, although sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest coverage. In East Asia drinking water coverage increased from 68 per cent in 1990 to 88 per cent in 2006, which represents 416 million people who have gained access to improved water sources since 1990. In China, coverage increased from 55 per cent in 1990 to 85 per cent in 2006. The proportion of people with safe water in South Asia increased from 74 per cent to 87 per cent, and in Latin America from 84 per cent to 92 per cent.

African progress

In sub-Saharan Africa safe water coverage increased from 49 per cent in 1990 to 58 per cent in 2006, despite a big increase in population. An additional 207 million Africans now have safe drinking water. Seven of the eight countries that made the most progress on water between 1990 and 2006 are sub-Saharan African - Burkina Faso, Namibia, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, Mali and Djibouti, with Guatemala the only non-African country on the list. But drinking water availability in the region is still much lower than in other regions.

Progress has to be kept in perspective. The MDG target is modest for something as essential to life as water. It is only necessary because the 1980s International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade - which had the goal of "clean water for all by 1990" - barely made a dent in the problem. The number of people in the world without clean water hardly budged in the 1980s, stagnating at around two billion.

Insufficient priority and resources were devoted to achieving the goal - and the consequences are clear.

A child dies every 15 seconds from water-related diseases, says UNICEF. The number of children under five dying from diarrhoea is estimated at almost two million per year. An estimated 88 per cent of diarrhoea deaths are attributed to poor hygiene practices, unsafe drinking water supplies and inadequate access to sanitation.

Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, northeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.© WHO/P. Virot
Millions of women continue literally to carry the can. "The burden of not having safe water falls largely on women - they collect it in rural areas, while in urban areas they may have to queue for hours at a standpipe", says Henry Northover, head of policy of the non-governmental organisation WaterAid. But most of those without safe drinking water live in rural areas - an estimated 746 million rural dwellers, compared to 138 million urban residents.

Average figures can hide lack of access for specific communities. In Latin America, for example, "there are worrying pockets of low coverage among indigenous peoples", says Clarissa Brocklehurst, chief of water at UNICEF.

Patchy performance

What is encouraging is the progress in many of the 50 least developed countries (LDCs) - where average annual incomes are less than US$750 and where health problems caused by unsafe drinking water are often acute. Four of the LDCs have met the drinking water target - Guinea, Malawi, Nepal and Tuvalu - and a further 12 countries are on track to hit the target in 2015. In another 15 of the poorest countries, progress is low - Bangladesh, Haiti and 13 African countries.

In six LDCs progress is either stagnant or reversing, including Ethiopia "which has significant water supply and climate-change-related problems", according to the UN's Least Developed Countries 2008 report. Figures are not available for the remaining 13 poorest countries.

The big question is why some countries, even those classed as among the very poorest, are doing well and not others?

"It comes through commitment by government to accelerate progress to achieving the target, including encouraging government departments toco-ordinate their efforts", says Northover.

Aid for improved water has tended to be marginal. A great deal more aid money is going into education than into improved water supply.Children who are not at school are visible, people dying of thirst and even water-related diseases less so.

"Many policy makers have a blind spot - they don't make the link between infant mortality and unsafe water", says Northover.

Again there is a clear link between education and clean water. Children are not being educated when they are too ill to go to school because of unsafe water at home. A growing realisation of the links is leading to more interest in funding water projects, believes Brocklehurst.

The lesson was learnt from the 1980s that there is little point in setting a target unless something is done to achieve it. Also that community participation is vital. A pump that is just plonked in a village by government, for example, will not necessarily be maintained by villagers.

Rising cost

The challenge in reaching the water target remains considerable. Worldwide, an additional 784 million people will need to gain accessto improved drinking water sources by 2015 to meet the MDG target, according to the WHO/UNICEF report.

The ultimate issue is whether people can actually make use of a safe water source. Even if drinking water is available, can people afford it? Once considered a public good, water is increasingly in private hands. And water companies expect payment. The controversial privatisation of water supplies, in for example Bolivia, Ghana and Tanzania, has led to huge protests from people who fear being priced out of a supply. A survey in Accra, Ghana, found that poor households are spending between 18 to 25 per cent of their income on water.

Again, for many water systems, energy to pump water is needed. "The problem here is that many developing countries do not have a 24/7power supply", says Northover.

A further difficulty is that around 65 per cent of hand water pumps are estimated to be out of order at any one time, says Brocklehurst, "so it's important that spare parts are available locally when people need them".

Hanging over many developing countries is also the likelihood that climate change will lower the availability of water.

So the figures tell only part of the story. It seems clear that a huge and many-sided effort, including more resources, will be needed ifeveryone is to enjoy sustainable access to safe water.

Related links:

'Spend more or face water catastrophe'

Water and sanitation factfile