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DEVELOPMENT: Progress on Water, Less on Sanitation

Omid Memarian

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 17 2008 (IPS) - The number of people globally who lack access to an improved drinking water source has fallen below one billion for the first time since data was compiled in 1990, according to a report released Thursday by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

A woman bathes her girl toddler at an outdoor pump in a destroyed neighbourhood of Dili, capital of East Timor. Credit: UNICEF

A woman bathes her girl toddler at an outdoor pump in a destroyed neighbourhood of Dili, capital of East Timor. Credit: UNICEF

The Joint Monitoring Programme for Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) report, titled “Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation – Special Focus on Sanitation,” comes halfway through the International Year of Sanitation.

The report assesses – for the first time ever – global, regional and country progress using an innovative “ladder” concept. This shows sanitation practices in greater detail, enabling experts to highlight trends in using improved, shared and unimproved sanitation facilities, as well as trends in the problematic practice of open-air defecation.

Similarly, the “drinking water ladder” shows the percentage of the world population that uses water piped into a dwelling, plot or yard; other improved water sources such as hand pumps, and unimproved sources. “At present 87 percent of the world population has access to improved drinking water sources, with current trends suggesting that more than 90 percent will do so by 2015,” stated in the JMP report.

“Most of the development agencies like UNICEF use this report to be able to determine what the areas of high priority are and what kind of sanitation programming they need to do,” Clarissa Brocklehurst, chief of water and environmental sanitation at UNICEF, told IPS. “Many of the North African countries have quite high sanitation rates, but there are still pockets of countries that are still struggling to get their sanitation rates up.”

The number of people worldwide practicing open defecation dropped from 24 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2006. The report also highlights disparities within national borders, particularly between rural and urban dwellers. Worldwide, there are four times as many people in rural areas – approximately 746 million – without improved water sources, compared to some 137 million urban dwellers.

Poor sanitation threatens children’s survival as a fecally contaminated environment is directly linked to diarrheal disease, one of the biggest killers of infants under the age of five. A clean environment is very difficult to ensure if open defecation is practiced, even if only by a minority of the population.

“At current trends, the world will fall short of the millennium sanitation target by more than 700 million people,” said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF executive director. “Without dramatic improvements, much will be lost.”

However, more and more people are now using improved sanitation facilities – that is, facilities that ensure human excreta are disposed of in a way that prevents them from causing disease by contaminating food and water sources. Though open defecation is on the decline worldwide, 18 percent of the world’s population, totaling 1.2 billion people, still practice it. In southern Asia, some 778 million people still rely on this riskiest sanitation practice.

The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for a 50-percent reduction in the number of people living without adequate drinking water, sanitation or toilets, by the year 2015.

In response to a question from IPS regarding the countries that seem very unlikely to meet these targets, Brocklehurst emphasised there is still time. “The whole reason for having MDGs is that they are goals and they are there to keep us on track,” she added. “We have to believe that we can scale up. It’s true that some countries are facing much higher challenges than others, and this is why the new approaches are very important.”

“We have today a full menu of low-cost technical options for the provision of sanitation in most settings,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general. “More and more governments are determined to improve health by bringing water and sanitation to their poorest populations. If we want to break the stranglehold of poverty, and reap the multiple benefits for health, we must address water and sanitation.”

Real improvements in access to safe drinking water have occurred in many of the countries of southern Africa. According to the report, seven of the 10 countries that have made the most rapid progress and are on track to meet the MDG drinking water targets are in sub-Saharan Africa (Burkina Faso, Namibia, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, Djibouti). Of the countries not yet on track to meet the sanitation target, but making rapid progress, five are in sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Cameroon, Comoros, Mali and Zambia)

“Three underlying themes in the report is [firstly] that sanitation is badly off track and that brings tremendous consequences,” said Dr. Jamie Bartram, coordinator of the WHO’s water, sanitation, hygiene and health programme, in a telephone briefing from Geneva.

“Secondly, for the first time in this report, we have hard evidence that shows what can be done. There is a lot to be done – but it can be done, and that is very highlighted by this reflection of which countries have achieved most with the resources that are available to them.”

“Thirdly, we need a response,” added Bartram. “But the truth is that sanitation has been missing from the MDG chart. We need now to be looking not only to the period after 2015, but beyond that. That needs real prioritisation.”

“For UNICEF, trying to deal with rural water supply is one of our biggest challenges in that providing water supply in remote areas can be extremely expensive,” Brocklehurst told IPS. “So we need to find ways to bring down the costs of drilling.”

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