By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International
In a recent interview I was asked to describe the global water and sanitation crisis. I used to be able to quote the statistics confidently: “X billion don’t have water; X billion don’t have toilets.” The numbers, happily, have decreased over time. Or have they?
In March 2012, the World Health Organization trumpeted that the Millennium Development Goal for water had been met, early (the goals aimed for 2015)! This means that between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells.
So the world’s target is now the 783 million people still without access to safe drinking water.
Or is it? WHO & UNICEF, the authors of the Progress on Drinking Water & Sanitation 2012 report, cautioned that the measurement of water quality is not possible globally, and “Significant work must be done to ensure that improved sources of water are and remain safe.”
“Remain safe.” This brings me to the concern that we might be taking 2 billion steps forward, and 1 billion steps back. Knowing what we know about water system failures, how can we be sure that all the people counted as having improved (if not safe) water access will still have it next year?
Assuming the water is still flowing, is it actually of good quality? A study by the University of North Carolina estimates that 3 billion people don’t have access to safe water, using a more stringent definition that includes both actual water quality and sanitary risks. That figure is 2.3 billion more than the WHO & UNICEF official estimate.
And if you want to get really picky, consider the article by Gerard Payen, AquaFed president & member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. He states, “Depending on the criteria used to define satisfactory access to safe drinking water, the current need can be assessed to be either less than one billion people. . . or almost 4 billion (more than half the world’s population).” The bigger number is an estimate of users without “permanent and satisfactory safe drinking water supply in the home.” But hardly anyone is measuring the availability of water and customer satisfaction.
Payen defines access like most Americans would define it: “water of good quality, in sufficient quantity, and without need for additional treatment, on an almost constant basis, in their homes for their daily life.” I think that’s a reasonable target. If you agree, you have a chance to chime in on how the next set of global goals are defined; join the dialog here.