No room for complacency

The Guardian

24 September 2008

Progress on halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water has been impressive, but the figures only tell part of the story...

The good news for millions is that the millennium development goals' drinking-water target - to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 - is on track.

Some 87% of the world's population now has a safe drinking-water source, compared with 77% 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.

According to a recent report by the WHO/Unicef joint monitoring programme for drinking water and sanitation, regional figures for safe water coverage are also impressive. Since 1990 all regions report they are showing gains except Oceania, it says, although not all regions are on track (eg sub-Saharan Africa - an area suffering constant droughts that has been receiving UK government funding over the past few years).

But progress has to be kept in perspective. The target is modest for something as essential to life as water. 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 and, of that number, an estimated 88% of deaths are attributed to poor hygiene practices, unsafe drinking water supplies and inadequate access to sanitation.

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 at the non-governmental organisation WaterAid. Most of those without safe drinking water live in rural areas - an estimated 746 million rural dwellers, compared with 138 million urban residents.

What is encouraging is the progress in many of the 50 least developed countries (LDCs), where average annual incomes are less than $750 (£375) 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 - Bangladesh, Haiti and 13 African countries - progress is slow.

In six countries 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 are some countries, even those classed as among the very poorest, doing well and not others?

"It comes through commitment by government to accelerate progress to achieving the target, including encouraging government departments to coordinate 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 policymakers 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 Clarissa Brocklehurst, chief of water at Unicef.

The challenge in reaching the water target remains considerable. Worldwide, an additional 784 million people will need to gain access to improved drinking water sources by 2015 to meet the millennium development goal 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 supplies and services are 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 and 25% 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 24/7 power supply," says Northover. A further difficulty is that around 65% of hand water pumps are estimated to be out of order at any one time, says Unicef's 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 if everyone is to enjoy sustainable access to safe water.