Halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation is “the least on-track target” of the millennium development goals (MDGs), as 2.5 billion people still lack basic sanitation facilities.
A lack of investment in water, hygiene and sanitation as well as government failure to plan country-wide programmes has hindered progress, according to the UN water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water report.
The study, which is based on data from 94 countries and 23 aid agencies, said 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water that is contaminated and 1 billion defecate in the open, nine in 10 of whom live in rural areas.
“[Water and sanitation] is the least on-track target of the 21 MDG targets,” said Chris Williams, executive director of the UN-based Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). “Many countries have really good strategies or targets, even business plans, but their ability to translate that into decentralised implementation programmes is really weak. This is the ultimate bottleneck.”
Water and sanitation goals have struggled to capture the attention of international donors, who have prioritised spending on other MDG targets.
About 1 billion people are thought to defecate in the open, the report said, with 600 million of them in India. “We’re all really impressed with what Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has done in India; I think anyone in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene has really been wrestling with India,” said Williams.
But the report said more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water over the past 25 years, although Williams cautioned that it can be difficult to judge the quality of drinking water. The number of children dying from diarrhoeal disease – which is linked to dirty water – has fallen from 1.5 million in 1990 to around 600,000 in 2012, the study said.
Financing for water, hygiene and sanitation programmes rose from $8.3bn in 2010 to $10.9bn in 2012. But 75 countries featured in the report said they needed more cash to reach the goals.
Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organisation’s department of public health and the environment, said: “Water and sanitation are essential to human health. Political commitment to ensure universal access to these vital services is at an all-time high. International aid for the sector is on the rise. But we continue to see major financial gaps at the country level, particularly in rural areas.”
Insufficient monitoring and evaluation of current programmes has hampered efforts to improve water and sanitation, the report said.
Williams urged developing countries to prioritise training in monitoring the impact of sanitation programmes. “Most of the countries that are wrestling with sanitation and hygiene shortfalls have really good training institutes. The question is getting sanitation and hygiene into the curriculum,” he said.
With the sustainable development goals due to be launched next year, many are calling for water and sanitation to be prioritised in the next development agenda.
“We may not know yet what the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will look like, said Michel Jarraud, chair of UN-Water, “but we do know that water and sanitation must be clear priorities if we are to create a future that allows everyone to live healthy, prosperous and dignified lives.”
Nadya Kassam, global head of campaigns for WaterAid, said: “The report points out that the UN millennium development goal on sanitation is among the most behind, with dire consequences. Not having clean running water and functioning toilets is fuelling the spread of disease, as we have seen with the devastation of Ebola.
“WaterAid research has found that this crisis has killed more than 10 million children under age five since 2000, from diarrhoea, pneumonia or malnutrition – all directly linked to growing up without clean water, basic toilets and handwashing.”