By Emma Batha
The United Nations recently declared the world had met an ambitious target for halving the number of people without safe drinking water well ahead of a 2015 deadline.
It’s an impressive achievement, but not necessarily as impressive as it sounds.
The real number of people still without safe water may be as high as 4 billion – five times greater than the 800 million figure commonly cited – according to Robert Bos, an expert at the World Health Organization (WHO).
The discrepancy is all down to the definition of ‘safe’ water.
When the United Nations adopted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 it set a target “to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” between 1990 and 2015.
The trouble is, no one questioned how this would be done – measuring water safety on this scale is unfeasible. In the end monitors settled on measuring the use of an improved water source – things like piped water and wells protected from animals – as an indicator of safety.
But of course this doesn’t necessarily mean the water is safe. It may be piped untreated from a river. There can still be dangerous levels of faeces, arsenic or fluouride.
One study in Nicaragua found around two-thirds of improved water sources were contaminated. Another in Ethiopia found very high levels of fluouride in improved supplies in the Rift Valley.
“With the benefit of hindsight – going back to 2000 – we should have said ‘access to improved drinking water sources’ rather than ‘safe water’ because then we would have known what we were talking about,” said Bos, WHO’s coordinator of water, sanitation and health.
He would also have removed the word “sustainable”, which is likewise tricky to measure and appears to have been swept under the carpet.
No one knows how many people are really living with unsafe water but, extrapolating from studies in five countries including Nicaragua and Ethiopia, Bos estimated the true figure is between 1 billion and 4 billion.
However, he stressed none of this should take away from what is “incredible progress” – in the last two decades more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved water sources.
The progress is particularly impressive in Africa, where many countries have had a lot of catching up to do and have also seen large population growth, Bos said.
The point of improving water is of course to prevent disease. But some commentators have pointed out that the dramatic progress on water has not been accompanied by a big drop in diarrhoeal diseases – one of the biggest killers of young children.
Bos said the focus on water has overshadowed the real issue that needs attention: the lack of access to sanitation and the poor capacity of many countries to deal with human waste and wastewater.
The MDG target on improving sanitation is unlikely to be met by 2015.
Some 2.5 billion people – over a third of the world – still lack access to improved sanitation, including more than 1 billion who have to defecate in the open.
“Solving the sanitation problem, and the wastewater management problem, will have a huge impact on the quality of drinking water sources and thereby help improve the overall situation,” Bos added.
“So personally, I wish the discussion would shift away from drinking water and focus on the real problem of poor sanitation.”