Water in the news

This blog was originally posted on the 3ksan.org website.

Last month it was announced that we have met the UN Millennium Development Goal for water, with over 2 billion people having gained access to drinking-water since 1990. But do these people really have access to safe water, and for how long with these systems last?

In the wake of the World Water Forum in Marseille in March, water has been in the news quite a bit (sorry, sanitation, you are largely ignored once again).  The big news from Marseille was that the Millennium Development Goal for water has been achieved early (1), with over 2 billion people having gained access to drinking-water since 1990.  That is a great achievement and should be celebrated: consider the number of lives saved; consider what this achievement means in terms of reducing the time spent collecting water; and consider how the reduction in waterborne disease, time and financial costs will free up families to spend more time in education and employment.

But equally let’s not forget the 783 million people who still don’t have access to safe drinking-water (1). Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas where many countries have not yet achieved the MDG, with 31 of the 50 countries in that region not expected to meet the MDG in the next 3 years. From 1990 to 2010, the proportion of people with access to improved water supplies in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa has not changed: slums, and the associated issues of poverty and insecurity of land tenure, remain one of the biggest challenges to providing safe drinking-water, as well as sanitation.

Now is the time to assess the sustainability of the drinking-water facilities that have been built. In order to achieve the aims of the MDGs these water supplies need to be clean and they need to maintained. Thirty to forty percent of hand pumps in Sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to be broken, which is equivalent to “hundreds of millions of aid dollars [being] poured down the drain” (2).

The quality of the water provided by these systems is also variable. The improved drinking-water facilities are designed to reduce the potential for contamination at the tap, be it at a well, spring or pipe, but the actual water quality is not considered in the MDGs. In reality, many of these drinking-water supplies are contaminated, with at least 1.9 billion people estimated to use water that is “unsafe and dangerous for their health” (3).

One of the major threats to water quality is poor sanitation. This doesn’t just mean open defecation or a lack of an “improved” sanitation system, it might include a pit latrine built too close to a drinking-water well, or poorly maintained sewer that leaks into the aquifer, or a septic tank that discharges directly into a stream. To manage this issue there is a need for surveillance of the sanitation and drinking-water facilities, not the expensive and difficult water quality monitoring, but the kind that can be done with basic education about protecting and maintaining water supplies based on a better understanding of the environment in which they are situated.

This progress in meeting the MDG for water doesn’t mean that we can reduce our efforts. DFID spending on sanitation and water is already poor in comparison with similar overseas development programmes (4), but if it is effective it can still go a long way if it is targeted towards education and maintenance (and improving sanitation) to ensure the sustainability of drinking-water supplies.


(1) WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (2012). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation. 2012 Update.  WHO and UNICEF. http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/JMP-report-2012-en.pdf [Accessed 26 March 2012]

(2) Skinner, J. (2012). Clean drinking water is about people, not pipes. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/mar/15/clean-drinking-water-people-pipes [Accessed 26 March 2012]

(3) Payen, G. (2011). Worldwide needs for safe drinking water are underestimated: billions of people are impacted. Originally published as: Published in French in Le Droit à l’eau potable et à l’assainissement, Sa mise en œuvre en Europe, Académie de l’Eau, Smets et al., 2011, p45-63. http://www.aquafed.org/pdf/Payen_DrinkingWaterNeedsUnderEstimate_EN_2011-11-09.pdf [Accessed 27 March 2012]

(4) Kinnock, G. (2012) Why has water and sanitation aid fallen even as global aid has increased? http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/mar/22/decrease-in-aid-for-water-sanitation?intcmp=239 [Accessed 26March 2012]