Has the MDG for safe water really been achieved?


The WHO/UN JMP report, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012, reported on Tuesday that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7c had been met 5 years ahead of schedule. For those of you not acquainted with the target, it reads as follows;

‘Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’ (UN)

The news spread quickly. The Guardian stated ‘Millennium development goal on safe drinking water reaches target early’. The BBC announced that ‘UN meets Millennium Development Goal on drinking water’, interviewed Margaret Batty of WaterAid on the BBC Today programme (available below).

And ran the following report on BBC worldwide;

This news is indeed cause for celebration. A huge increase in access to safe water for millions of people is a real achievement. But it isn’t that simple.

To be fair to the media, and the original report, it was noted that this achievement was mainly an Asian one. A great swathe of sub-Saharan Africa is still far from achieving the coverage levels required of the MDGs and what coverage there is often tends to benefit urban areas rather than rural. This aspect is already covered by Tom Murphy (@viewfromthecave) here and Sue Yardley (@sueyardley) of Tearfund here.

All articles also state that progress towards sanitation is way off track, centuries behind schedule in fact. The reason this is so important is that without adequate sanitation and hygiene, much of the value of safe water is lost, through subsequent contamination. Diarrhoeal disease is the second largest cause of child mortality worldwide and it is intrinsically linked to sanitation and hygiene.

Our point however, is that the target has simply not been met.

Remember, that target was to ‘halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation’

Important word; sustainable.

Or put another way, how many of those safe water sources are actually functioning today, or will continue to function until 2015? Not many people asked that question. We did and Ned Breslin, (@nedbreslin) CEO of Water for People, certainly made the point.

The sustainability of water sources is the elephant in the room. Short programme cycles and poor exit strategies mean that scenes such as the one below are not uncommon.


We took this photo whilst doing a survey of existing water coverage in a village which had applied to us for a safe water source. Because the existing source had failed and no system was in place to maintain it, the community were forced to return to drinking water from here;

In a survey we conducted in Gomba district in partnership with WaterAid Uganda in 2009, we found that of the 400 existing sources sampled, only 265 were still functional (66.25%). In the Konso district of Ethiopia, WaterAid found that only 25% of sources were functional. These are only samples of functionality in an area already identified as being off track and certainly doesn’t speak for the progress of India and China, but it raises significant questions about the sustainability of existing coverage and as such, the reliability of the headlines.

Now, the report did hold its hands up to this. Under the Data Limitations (page 34) section, it stated that;

It does not take into account other important parameters, such as drinking water quality, the availability of adequate quantities of water for domestic use, the number of service hours available, the distance to a water source or sanitation facility, or the time household members spend on access and use of sources and facilities.

While there is broad agreement that the reliability and sustained functioning of water and sanitation systems should somehow be captured, there are no broadly agreed-upon standards against which these should be measured. Indeed, ‘sustainable access’, a term used in the MDG target, has not been adequately defined in measurable terms, particularly since sustainability involves so many dimensions. (JMP 2012)

How can they confidently state that the target has been met when they admit that there is no adequate method of measuring whether it is sustainable – a key criteria of the target. It is indeed hard to define sustainability, though WEDC made a decent stab at it (in context of hand pumps). This doesn’t mean that pronouncements can be made in the absence of a clear definition.

We, as an organisation, know that not all of the wells we have constructed over the past 30 years are currently functional. There are many reasons for sources to fail; water users committees lose cohesion, local hand pump mechanics don’t operate effectively or even climatic events (i.e. El Nino) can cause fluctuations in water tables. But we are putting valuable manpower and resources towards the rehabilitation of those sources. We would wish for such ongoing O&M to be standard practice.

Maybe we are playing the role of the doubting Thomas. We may be wrong about the MDG and are hopeful of being proven thus. But it is surely right to ask the question?