6 Mar 2012

Not so fast UN

Addendum: My freakonomics post on this topic from 3.5 years ago.
Headlines this morning report "UN meets Millennium Development Goal on drinking water," but reporters are confused about what the headline really means. The BBC, for example, writes:
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon hailed the achievement of halving the number of people without access to improved drinking water [1].

He said it was thanks to people who had seen it not as a dream, but a vital step to improve health and well-being.

Improvement to clean water supplies [2] has not been even: 40% of those still without access to improved drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldwide, almost 800 million people still drink dirty water [2]. But in the past 20 years, two billion people have gained access to improved drinking water [1].
The confusion originates in the way this goal was originally promoted but then differently implemented.*

The original goal was to get CLEAN water to people, but that was changed to "access to an improved water source," which (1) says nothing about the QUALITY of that water and (2) is defined as:
...water supply in the home or within 15 minutes walking distance. Actually a proper definition should be adopted taking the local conditions into account; in urban areas, a distance of not more than 200 metres from a house to a public stand post may be considered reasonable access. In rural areas, reasonable access implies that anyone does not have to spend a disproportionate part of the day fetching water for the family's needs.
As you may well imagine, a reader with drinkable household tap water may mistakenly interpret these headlines to mean, for example, that the 87% of Ugandan urban dwellers defined to have "access" have piped water to their homes when only 7% do -- and who knows about its quality?

From the story above, you can see the confusion between [1] improved supplies and [2] clean water, which is NOT tracked by the UN. The reporter makes a simple, but legitimate mistake -- assuming a common sense interpretation of a goal that the UN has defined to meet bureaucratic -- not human -- standards.

Bottom Line: It's more likely that 3 billion people** -- half the Earth's population -- lacks USEFUL access to DRINKABLE water. That's the number we need to pay attention to -- not a fantasy that allows bureaucrats and politicians to declare victory amidst the misery of people who are still suffering.
* That's why the story mentions this curious item -- "improved water." WTF is that?
** Water geeks like me use 3 billion, but there's no good statistic -- since nobody is really tracking quality.