14 Sep 2017

UN doesn't know how many billions need safe water

Nine years ago, I wrote a column1 pointing out that the UN's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for "safe drinking water" had replaced "safe water" with a goal of "access to an improved water source [AIWS]," which was defined as a location that has the potential to supply water (meaning there may be no water or the water may not be safe to drink) and which lies within 200m of one's (urban) dwelling or "takes less than a disproportionate part of the day" to reach for rural dwellers (!)

If you were following this topic (MDG 7.3), then you would know that the UN now claims that less than 700 million people lack AIWS while others estimate that over 4 billion lack access to clean, reliable water. That's a pretty serious difference!

Well, I am glad to say that the UN has caught up with reality in designing its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)2 when it announced in July that SDG target 6.1 would seek, "by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water [SADW] for all," meaning that drinking water should be:
  • accessible on premises,
  • available when needed, and
  • free from contamination.
This changed target is helpful in focussing attention (and time, money and personnel) on a target that everyone can understand (AIWS misdirected effort), but the UN still appears to be in denial, i.e., its report on SDG 6.1 goals mentions 663 million lacking access to AIWS, but provides no decent country-by-country figures comparing AIWS to SADW.

The figure above shows that 71 percent of the world's population have SADW (meaning that 2.1 billion people lack it) while 92 percent have AIWS. That 19 percent gap may be too small -- and thus too hopeful -- if an additional 1-2 billion actually lack SADW.

How big is the real gap?

The figure at left reflects an attempt at "ground truthing" in comparing AIWS to AIWS without E.coli, which is one fairly obvious step towards SADW. As you can see, the drop in "status" when E.Coli is added ranges from 36 to 74 percent, but it's 38 percent based on population (Bangladesh has many people. Of course, these countries are poorer and more corrupt than average,3 but we also haven't even tried to include "access on premises" or "available when needed," so the gap is probably larger than 38 percent for those countries.

I was going to make my own estimate of an SADW baseline using some statistical guesses based on ratios I just described, but I just found the UN report underlying the 71 percent figure above. The report makes for good reading, but its most important fact is that the 71 percent figure is based on "estimates available for 96 countries (representing 35 per cent of the global population)."

It's kinda scary to think that their 71 percent figure omits 2/3rds of the world population. Even worse, the included countries which are rich enough to provide data are also probably rich enough to have  SADW! Given these concerns, I suggest that you ignore the 71 percent claim of SADW until the UN gets better data.4 (Personally, I'm going to stick with 50 percent, i.e, 3.6 billion without SADW.)

Bottom Line: The UN is now talking about the right target for safe drinking water but achieving that target will require honest statistics and competent governments that can regulate, fund and (perhaps) deliver safe drinking water.

  1. This 2017 op/ed by Tortajada and Biswas makes the same points, with the indignity at the deception:
    The pontiff’s clear and unambiguous focus on safe, drinkable water should be noted and welcomed. This is a fresh and welcome statement which contrasts with the consistent obfuscations of the magnitude of the problems by international organizations over the past four decades... A fundamental issue in terms of water as a human right is quality. Inexplicably, this has been mostly missing from the global discussions. Humans have had access to water one way or another: otherwise they could not have survived. What is needed is equitable access to water that is safe to drink for everyone, irrespective of the economic and social conditions.
  2. I think the SDGs are too numerous and varied to be managed in any efficient way, but I don't mind presenting statistics on development indicators.
  3. Here's my Forbes column [full paper] on how poor governance (corruption) is a bigger barrier to SADW than the lack of a laws calling for a human right to water.
  4. Let's not even get started on the many flaws in data collection in poorer countries.

1 comment:

Ed Bourque said...


Very good post. I think that governance and affordability are indeed key factors behind lack of access to safe drinking water. I've been saying this since I did a PhD in WASH governance and said it in an article over at WRI earlier this year. http://thecityfix.com/blog/urban-water-governance-in-the-developing-world-accountability-and-affordability-are-keys-to-access-water-ed-bourque/

This is why when I hear about the shortage of water at the IWRM level being put forth as the main reason for lack of access to drinking water, it drives me nuts. Issues around clean drinking water are a bit different from IWRM economics and allocation concerns.

Conceptually, I see drinking water as service delivery governance and IWRM more along the lines of NRM related governance. similar, but different...

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