Inside Story

Are more people getting safe drinking water?

The UN claims early success in achieving global target but prevailing challenges point to a possible overestimation.

The UN announced that the international target to cut the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water by half, has been met five years before the 2015 deadline.

What is being measured is basically the type of improved technology that people are supposed to be accessing like a hand-pump or a tap in the house. What’s not being measured is whether it works, the quality, how far people have to walk to get to that water.”

– Patrick Moriarty, the International Water and Sanitation Centre

The report issued on Tuesday by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that between 1990 and 2010, over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources such as piped supplies and protected wells.

It estimated that by the end of 2010 more than six billion people – around 89 per cent of the world’s population – had access to safe water.

That is one per cent more than the 88 per cent target set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) number seven, set in 2000.

The report also highlights the immense challenges that remain regarding the drinking water target. Global figures show massive disparities between regions and countries, and within individual nations.

For instance, 11 per cent of the world population, or about 783 million people, still have no access to improved drinking water.

There also are huge regional disparities with four out of 10 people without access to safe water living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Our biggest issue [in Pakistan] is treating wastewater and unfortunately we are not doing it except for a little in Islamabad and Karachi. Both industrial and domestic wastewaters are going to our freshwater and groundwater sources on the farms outside the city.”

– Muhammad Jahangir, the founder of Better Tomorrow

Almost half of the two billion people who gained access to drinking water since 1990 live in China or India.

Another disparity is the number of people in rural areas using unimproved water sources, which is five times greater than in urban areas.

And, eight out of 10 people living in urban areas have piped water connections on their premises, compared to only three in 10 people in rural areas.
Finally the UNICEF-WHO joint monitoring programme also warned that the data collected does not assess the quality, or reliability of the water supply, or whether water sources were sustainable.

As a result, it is likely that the number of people using safe water supplies has been overestimated.

Does this really show an early success for the MDG? How reliable is the UN report on safe drinking water?

Joining presenter Adrian Finighan on Inside Story are guests: Patrick Moriarty, in charge of the International Programme for the International Water and Sanitation Centre, a Netherlands-based NGO; Joakim Harlin, a senior water resources advisor at the UNDP; and Muhammad Jahangir, the founder of Better Tomorrow, an NGO focusing on water sanitation.

“This achievement serves as a beacon, a success story, an inspiration, it shows that the MGDs are achievable even if it is to a certain degree quite simplistic and a blunt tool. It nevertheless has had a huge role in galvanising political will and commitment… we should claim victory for that.”

Joakim Harlin, a UNDP senior water resources advisor

State of sanitation:

About 63 per cent of the world’s population uses improved sanitation facilities.

Since 1990, 1.8 billion people have gained access to such facilities.

But an estimated 2.5 billion people are still without it – almost three quarters of them live in rural areas.

In urban areas, eight out of 10 people use an improved sanitation facility, compared to only half of the rural population.

However, the number of people without improved sanitation in urban areas has grown by 183 million since 1990 during a time of rapid urbanisation.

The number of people having to go to the toilet in public has dropped by 271 million since 1990.

Still, around 1.1 billion people around the world use public spaces as toilets.