06 March 2012

The State of Water and Sanitation: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A version of this post originally appears on the PSI Healthy Lives blog

The latest report from the WHO and UNICEF, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation (pdf), bears both good and bad news. Headlines about the report have been generally positive, but it feels that celebrations are a bit misleading. On the global scale, safe water is doing well. However, looking at individual countries and regions it becomes clear that there are areas that are significantly behind.

Here is the good, the bad and the ugly from the report. There is reason to be excited by progress, but it serves as a reminder of the importance to achieve a world with complete safe water coverage and improved sanitation. 

The Good

The good great news is that the world has halved the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water. This means that we are 5 years ahead of the 2015 target. According to the report, 'over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources and 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation facilities between 1990 and 2010.' That is a staggering accomplishment that deserves praise. The task of increasing access to safe drinking water seemed daunting in 1990 when considering the rapid population growth in low and middle income countries. This achievement is a testament to realizing a world with 100% safe drinking water access.

The Guardian reports:
[B]etween 1990 and 2010 more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells. Using data from household surveys and censuses, the JMP said at the end of 2010, 89% of the population – 6.1 billion people – now used improved drinking water sources, 1% more than the 88% target contained in millennium development goal (MDG) number seven, set in 2000.
The Bad

The bad news is that sub Saharan Africa and a few other regions are behind on attaining the goal by 2015.
As seen in the map below, the orange areas represent countries considered 'not on track' to achieve the safe drinking water MDG. If you include the countries where sufficient data was not collected it becomes clear that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Why then has the world already met the goal when SSA is behind? Most of the credit can go to China and India. With massive populations, the transformation of the two countries has brought access to safe drinking water to over a billion people. The home to the majority of the world's poor, as Charles Kenny pointed out to me, this is actually great news overall, but not for every country.

The Ugly

11%, or an estimated 780 million people, are without improved access to drinking water. That is 1 in 10 people! Worse yet, 2.5 billion people lack improved sanitation. UNICEF and WHO predict that at the current rate 605 million people will be without an improved drinking water source and 2.4 billion people will lack access to improved sanitation facilities in 2015. That is sizable improvement for safe drinking water, but little change for sanitation.

Though lumped together, water tends to get more attention and resources than sanitation. Just comparing the safe water access verses improved sanitation numbers makes this obvious. To eliminate the spread of water-borne disease, sanitation will need to play an important role.