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Development & Aid

World Has Met Development Target on Water, U.N. Claims

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2012 (IPS) - When the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution back in September 2000 laying out eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it specified 2015 as the target date to achieve them.

But most developing nations, primarily the least developed (LDCs), have faltered in some of these goals, including a 50-percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

A young girl in Cote d'Ivoire fills a clay pot from a nearby well refurbished by UNICEF to make clean water accessible to villagers and meet one of the MDGs. Credit: UN Photo/Ky Chung

The MDGs, however, are not without their success stories in the developing world, mostly coming out of countries such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

Still, the relatively limited successes of the MDGs are being overshadowed by the inherent failures – made worse by the spreading economic crisis worldwide.

On Tuesday, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a joint report claiming that the MDG target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water (spelled out under Goal 7 on environmental sustainability) has been reached well in advance of the 2015 deadline.

“Today, we recognise a great achievement for people of the world,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, with a tinge of pride, pointing out that “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,” he declared.

At the end of 2010, 89 percent of the world’s population, or 6.1 billion people, used improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells, according to the study titled “Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012”.

This is one percent more than the 88 percent MDG target. And by 2015, about 92 percent of the global population will have access to improved drinking water, says the report released by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.

A cautious UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake warned that victory could not yet be declared since at least 11 percent of the world’s population – roughly around 783 million people – are still without access to safe drinking water, and billions without sanitation facilities.

“The numbers are staggering. But the progress announced today is proof that MDG targets can be met with the will, the effort and the funds,” he added.

Asked what contributed to the success story, Sanjay Wijesekera, chief of UNICEF’s programme division for water, sanitation and hygiene, told IPS, “We believe the MDG drinking water target is one of the first to be met.”

The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation is the official U.N. mechanism with the task of monitoring progress towards MDG Target 7 (c) on drinking water supply and sanitation, he added, “But we are only reporting now, on the data from 2010, because that is the time lapse for the collection of the data.”

So the goal was already achieved in 2010, Wijesekera said, “we just did not know that it had been.”

An Overly Rosy Scenario?

Maude Barlow, the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a citizens' advocacy organisation, remained sceptical about the U.N. claims on the MDG target on water.

"While I congratulate all who work on this issue - the UN, NGOs, some countries - I don't think the picture is as rosy as this report would suggest," she told IPS.

One of the chief measurements of success used by the U.N. is to count the number of pipes installed in a given country.

But just because there is a pipe does not mean there is clean water coming out of it, and even if there is, it may be very far away, said Barlow, a former senior U.N. advisor on water to the president of the General Assembly in 2008-2009 and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, a strong advocate of the human right to water.

As well, the water may be - and often is - priced at a level where people cannot pay the rate.

"I have seen instances of people living in communities where pre-paid water metres provide clean drinking water right up to their homes but the women still walk kilometres to find water from polluted and dangerous sources because of an inability to pay for the piped water," she said.

Further, there are settlements of displaced people and slum dwellers governments do not recognise that are not counted in the country reports even though they have no running water.

Most important though is that other U.N. studies contradict these hopeful numbers and in fact, suggest the crisis is deepening as the ecological crisis grows, she added.

UN Habitat says that by 2030, more than half the population of huge urban centres will be slum dwellers with no access to water or sanitation services whatsoever.

A comprehensive report on Africa shows that water availability in Africa is steadily declining and only 26 of the continent's 53 countries are currently on track to meet the MDG drinking water targets.

And there is the World Bank report that by 2030, water demand will outstrip water supply by 40 percent, she noted.

"I worry that a report like this makes us feel the problem is on the way to being solved when in fact, it is the exact opposite."

The World Bank said last month that the poverty target had been met in 2010. It is similarly possible that other MDG targets have already been met, but have not yet been measured, he explained.

As for the success, he said, “we believe it is a concerted effort by governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), communities and the U.N. family to make access to drinking water sources a priority and work hard toward achieving it.”

Asked about the slow progress made by sanitation in reaching its goal by 2015, Wijesekera said, “The sanitation target has not been met, and the report projects that the target will not be met by 2015.”

“Globally, only 63 percent of the population use improved sanitation, and we will reach only 67 percent by 2015.”

At this slow rate of progress, UNICEF and WHO project that only in 2026 would 75 percent of the global population have access to basic sanitation facilities.

Asked about UNICEF’s stand on privatisation of water, he said that UNICEF’s position on this is pragmatic and focused on what provides the best outcomes for children.

“We do not have a preference for whether water is provided by the private or public sector (or a combination of these) provided, however, governments need to ensure proper oversight and regulation, measures need to be in place to ensure that the poorest are able to access services on a sustainable basis, and that there are functioning accountability mechanisms.”

Last year, the General Assembly declared water a basic human right, prompting the question whether drinking water should be made available free of charge to people in the world’s poorer nations – particularly the least developed countries (LDCs).

Asked for his reaction, Wijesekera said that according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, the human right to water does not oblige states to provide water free of charge.

“Services must be affordable to the poor and not compromise the realisation of other human rights such as food, housing and health,” he added.

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