Inequalities in access to clean drinking water and sanitation persist and in some cases are getting worse, although close to two billion people globally have gained access to clean drinking water and sanitation since 1990, according to new data from the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund.
This year’s Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation report shows significant improvements in water and sanitation access in most parts of the world since 1990, but says the number of people without adequate sanitation in towns and cities has increased, as gains have failed to keep pace with urban population growth.
“The data in the report shows a huge disparity between different parts of country populations, and it’s something we’ll see more of in the coming years unless we start to deal with it,” Chris Williams, the executive director of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a UN-hosted body that runs the Global Sanitation Fund, told IRIN.
In some cases, “progress on sanitation has often increased inequality by primarily benefiting wealthier people,” says the report, with open defecation levels for example in Mozambique varying from 13 percent among the rural rich (richest 20 percent) to 96 percent among the rural poor (poorest 20 percent).
“We’ve known for a long time that these global figures mask inequalities between rich and poor, urban and rural, and regions and countries,” said WaterAid’s deputy head of policy, Tom Slaymaker. “We’ve made steady progress but we need to see who is being left behind.”
Residents in towns and cities on average get better water and sanitation, but services decline sharply when it comes to informal settlements and slums.
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Nearly two billion people since 1990 have gained access to “improved sanitation” (through a system that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact). In the same period, more than two billion gained access to an improved water source.
By 2012, 166 countries had met the drinking water target in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), 77 had reached the sanitation target, and 56 countries had met both targets.
In 1990, 95 percent of people in urban areas had access to improved water, compared to 62 percent of people in rural areas. By 2012, those figures had risen to 96 percent and 82 percent respectively.
Open defecation has decreased from 24 percent to 14 percent in the period, but it is still practiced by around one billion people, mainly in rural areas. Nigeria saw the largest increase in the number of people defecating in the open from 23 million in 1990 to 39 million in 2012 (as the country’s population nearly doubled).
Water experts hope tackling inequality will be a key emphasis of the post-2015 global targets, dubbed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“We need a clear focus on inequality – it’s relatively easy to halve the numbers without access to clean water and sanitation, but it’s much harder to achieve universal access,” Slaymaker told IRIN.
Dirty water is a leading cause of death and ill health through water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid.
Improving basic sanitation has been neglected, say campaigners, because of the sector’s less than attractive image, with the result being that the world is unlikely to reach the Millennium Development Goal (target 7c) to “[h]alve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”
“[T]he world will miss the MDG sanitation target by over half a billion people,” says the report.
Nevertheless, the news on drinking water is more positive. The target of having 88 percent of the population using improved drinking water sources was achieved globally in 2010, even if 45 countries are not on track to meet the target at a national level.
Since 1990 more than two billion people have gained access to an improved water source, and nearly two billion people have gained access to improved sanitation.
“I know the numbers in need are still staggering but if you look at the figures you can see that enormous progress has been made over the last 22 years. The relative progress is a story that doesn’t get out very often,” said Williams.
There are now only three countries in the world (DR Congo, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea) where less than half the population have access to improved drinking water. The report says there has also been “impressive growth in the use of piped connections”, and a major global decline in open defecation.