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U.N. Water Goal Achieved, but More Work Needed
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) recently released a report indicating that the world achieved the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water in 2010. The goal sought to reduce by half the amount of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and the progress — five years ahead of the timeline — is commendable.
According to the report, more than 2 billion people gained access to an improved water source since 1990. That brings the number of people without access to safe drinking water down to 780 million worldwide — in other words, 1 in 9 people now have access to an improved water source. Efforts by governments, aid agencies like WHO and UNICEF, and human-rights organizations like UUSC are yielding tangible results. However, the picture may not be as rosy as the figures indicate. Here's why:
1. The water MDG is not synonymous with the human right to water.
The human right to water requires that governments guarantee their populations access to safe, affordable, available, and sufficient water for daily human needs. The MDG does not measure factors like affordability, sufficiency, and availability of water. For example, the report indicates that most of South Africa has met the water MDG, but there are still individuals in that country who are forced to live on 25 liters of water daily, because they don't have the money to pay for additional water. Civil-society groups there are still protesting the use of prepay meters in the country because it limits access to and affordability of sufficient water. Distance to the water source is also unaddressed by the MDG.
2. The water MDG measures access to a low standard of an "improved drinking-water source."
The WHO-UNICEF report defines improved drinking-water sources as those that "by the nature of their construction, are protected from outside contamination, particularly faecal matter." However, it admits "some of these sources may not be adequately maintained and therefore may not actually provide ‘safe drinking water.'" The report concludes that, "as a result, it is likely that the number of people using safe water supplies has been over-estimated." In lights of that, it's important that both agencies are working together to address water-quality monitoring. They are also working with the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation to develop new water and sanitation goals, which will contain refined indicators for water quality, for 2015 and beyond.
3. There are worrying regional disparities in gains made for access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
Half of the people who gained access are residents of just two countries, India and China. While these countries do make up a significant portion of the world's population, the results could be a simple indication that these countries receive the most aid or official development assistance for water — while others go without. Most of Africa and Oceania will still not have met the water MDG by 2015, as you can see in the map below.
4. The rural-urban divide continues to be a huge problem.
Rural populations continue to make only modest gains in access to safe drinking water. The report shows that millions of rural dwellers still lack access to safe drinking water. In fact, the number of rural people with access to "an improved water source" in 2010 was still five times less than urban dwellers.
To conclude, the WHO and UNICEF report brings positive but sobering news. It's necessary to go beyond the news headlines to the details — where you'll see we still have a long way to go. As stated in the report, "while this tremendous achievement should be applauded, a great deal of work remains."