07 Jun 2012: Analysis

On Safe Drinking Water,
Skepticism Over UN Claims

With great fanfare, the United Nations announced in March that the world had reduced by half the proportion of people drinking unsafe water, meeting a critical development goal five years ahead of schedule. But a closer look reveals that the facts simply do not support this claim.

by fred pearce

It was rare good news. On March 6, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the world had halved the proportion of the world’s population drinking unsafe water. One of the key Millennium Development Goals set by the UN more than a decade earlier had been reached — and, moreover, it had been reached five years ahead of schedule. Ban Ki-moon called it “a great achievement for the people of the world.” And apparently, the world agreed, as most media reported the claim at face value.

There was just one problem. The claim is not true — and the experts know it.

A senior water professional with one of the UN agencies responsible for tracking progress to reach the drinking water target, said on condition of anonymity, “We should not say that the MDG water target has been met
The claim hides more than it reveals, including the failings of the UN and the international community.
since we know that the indicator used to measure it has too many limitations.” He called the UN claim “a drastic overestimate.”

I have spoken to many other development and water experts within the UN system and among water NGOs who agree. They say the claim is an institutional construct that says little about the true state of drinking water around the world. It allows UN officials to sign off with a successful outcome — but it hides far more than it reveals, including the failings of the UN and the international community.

The drinking water target was set at a UN General Assembly in 1999, where countries promised to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water.” Achieving that, from a baseline of 1990, was what the UN on March 6 claimed the world had achieved.

For water professionals, the target created an immediate problem. Few developing countries routinely measure the safety of drinking water. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, who are charged with monitoring progress on the target, say it would be “prohibitively expensive” to do so. They decided instead on a proxy for safe water — “access to improved drinking water.”

They defined an improved source as water from a piped supply, a drilled well, a hand-dug well or spring “protected” from sewage contamination, or collected rainwater. Unimproved sources included rivers and open wells and water delivered by carts, all of which face obvious risks of contamination. In so doing, they replaced a health target with an engineering target.

The UN says that, by this measure, the proportion of the world’s population without access to improved water sources fell from 24 percent in 1990 to 11 percent by the end of 2010. An increase in human population means that the actual number of people is only down by about 40 percent to 783 million, but the target has been met.

The big question, however, is whether it is right to conclude that an “improved” water source is safe. The answer is not very.

A 2011 report on progress toward the target prepared by a joint monitoring program of UNICEF and the WHO noted that the engineering proxy “does not guarantee the quality of drinking water consumed.” The experts said they thus “cannot report on the actual water safety aspect of the MDG drinking water target.”

UN officials had reached this conclusion after commissioning a five-nation “rapid assessment” of supposedly “improved” water sources. It found that more than half of the sampled water from supposedly
The big question is whether an “improved” water source is safe. The answer is not very.
“protected” hand-dug wells, which were being counted as safe sources of drinking water, was actually contaminated — so was about a third of the water from “protected” springs and drilled wells. As a result, in Nigeria and Ethiopia, two of Africa’s most populous countries, only about 70 percent of the “improved” sources provided safe drinking water, the assessment found; and in Ethiopia, only 27 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water, rather than the 38 percent that had been claimed.

But between the publication of that assessment in 2011 and a new joint-monitoring report this March, there appears to have been a change of heart.

The 2012 report, drafted as background to the new claim that the world had met the MDG target, did agree that “some sources... may not actually provide safe drinking water. As a result, it is likely that the number of people using safe water supplies has been over-estimated.” But it did not update or even repeat the worrying rapid assessment findings. Instead, it appeared to dismiss them, noting that “these partial data sets... are seldom robust enough to draw conclusions on a global scale.”

The water professional who asked to remain anonymous told me that if the rapid assessment findings are typical, then “the data would show that we have not met the MDG target.”

There are further concerns. Not only is much of the water from “improved” water sources not safe, it may not be available at all. The same water professionals report an epidemic of broken and abandoned pipes and pumps. They fear that many of the broken pumps were assumed to be
Many broken pumps were assumed to be functioning when the UN assessed access to improved sources.
functioning when the UN assessed access to improved sources.

A widely quoted study for the Rural Water Supply Network, a group of water professionals that includes UNICEF experts, estimated from UN and government data in 2009 that 36 percent of hand pumps in 20 African countries were broken. In Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fewer than half were working. That was 125,000 pumps in all.

Jamie Skinner of the London-based think tank the International Institute for Environment and development quotes other local studies that confirm the finding. In the Menaka region of Mali, researchers found 80 percent of wells dysfunctional, and in northern Ghana 50 percent.

In their report, Clarissa Brocklehurst and her colleagues of the Rural Water Supply Network criticized the “shamefully” poor performance of drilled wells attached to hand-pulled pumps, the most popular “improved” water technology. A typical pump will break down within two years and most are abandoned within five. “Thousands of people who once benefited from a safe drinking water supply now walk past broken hand pumps or taps and on to their traditional dirty water point,” the report stated.

UNICEF spokeswoman Cecilia Scharp accepted that broken pumps were an important reason why the MDG target, while achieved globally, had not
In India, only certain castes are sometimes allowed to drink from a particular well.
been met in sub-Saharan Africa. But she said the household surveys used to measure access to improved water would not include broken wells because people would not mention them. The anonymous UN source disagreed. He said that from his experience of such surveys, “Many people will respond that they use a hand pump even if it is not working at the time of the survey.”

Another question is whether people actually use the water from the “improved” source, even if it is safe and functioning. The MDG target refers to “access” to improved water supplies. But the UN source questions what is meant by this word “access.” In practice, he says, “inspectors go to a village in, say, Burkina Faso, where there are 300 people and a new [drilled well], so they tick the box that says 300 people have access to improved drinking water — whether or not anyone uses it.”

Often there are cultural taboos — in India, for instance, only certain castes are sometimes allowed to drink from a particular well. And the water may be so far away that few people make the trek if there is another source, albeit a dirtier one, close by. According to the joint-monitoring program report, 18 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa supposedly using an “improved” water source are actually more than 30 minutes walk away.

Some experts argue that the obfuscation of data on drinking water hides a wider malaise over global strategy for providing safe water. A large part of the effort to meet the MDG target has been devoted by governments and NGOs to putting in drilled wells, usually connected to simple hand pumps. In rural areas in the developing world, including Africa and India, such wells are the most common type of “improved” drinking water source. But, despite their poor record, little attention is paid to keeping them functioning.

Brocklehurst and colleagues say water professionals have failed to come to grips with the chronic maintenance problem because it is regarded as “somebody else’s problem.” Many NGOs believe it is best to hand ownership of the wells to locals. But if the locals don’t have the training or skills to do maintenance, or any income for spare parts, then it is a recipe for failure.

The 2011 joint-monitoring report concluded that “increased reliance” on drilled wells that had a nasty habit of breaking down “raises significant concerns over water safety and sustainability.” Yet development agencies keep on installing new pumps to meet short-term targets without planning repairs.


On the Road Back to Rio,
Green Direction Has Been Lost

On the Road Back to Rio, Green Direction Has Been Lost
Twenty years ago, an historic environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro produced groundbreaking treaties and high hopes that pressing issues would be addressed. But as organizers prepare for the Rio+20 conference, Fred Pearce writes, there is little on the agenda to suggest any substantive action will be taken.
There are, it emerges, similar concerns about the box-ticking approach being adopted for achieving another MDG, the promise to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. Again, professionals fear that concern to reduce health risks from people coming into contact with faeces has been subverted into an exercise in installing technology.

Skinner points to recent research showing, for instance, that sanitation won’t have much effect on health unless virtually everyone in a community uses it. The biggest problem is children under three, who continue to defecate in the open and are the hardest to bring to heal. Skinner says that education programs to end open defecation might be more useful than a rush to install sewers.

David Zetland, an American water economist currently at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, also warns against the tendencies of bureaucracies to turn humanitarian objectives into inefficient technology drives. The MDG water target shows that tendency at its most dangerous, he says. “The original goal, to save lives, has been turned into a bureaucratic target that pays no attention to the quality of water that people actually drink.”

POSTED ON 07 Jun 2012 IN Biodiversity Policy & Politics Science & Technology Water North America 


Who would say “my house is on fire…………..probably?”

Scientists say “CO2’s effects will be deadly………probably?”

Besides them all grunting “climate change is real and happening”, scientists do not have any consensus on “effects” at all, let alone science having the perceived consensus on actual deadly effects. The IPCC always qualifies any CO2 effect with the free pass of “probable”. If they just said “A deadly climate crisis from Human CO2 will kill the planet.” and we are all \%100 certain.” I’d listen to the lab coats.

Deny that!

Posted by mememine on 11 Jun 2012

Good article.

Water is the Elixer of Life - Leonardo Da Vinci

Impure water is the root cause of many diseases.

1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water, roughly one-sixth of the world's population.
• 2.2 million people in developing countries, most of them children, die every year from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
• Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water related illnesses.
• In the past 10 years, diarrhea has killed more children than all the people lost to armed conflict since World War II.
• Despite the size of the problem, we have made little progress against it. There were only 181 million fewer people living without safe drinking water in rural settings in 2004 (899 million) vs. 1990 (1.08 billion)*1.
• 50 percent of people on earth lack adequate sanitation. Another way to look at it: Nearly half of the world's population fails to receive the level of water services available 2,000 years ago to the citizens of ancient Rome.
• Some 6,000 children die every day from disease associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene - equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing every day.
• The average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water is six kilometers.
• Tens of millions of children cannot go to school as they must fetch water every day.
Drop out rates for adolescent girls, who even make it that far, skyrocket once they hit puberty as there are no private sanitation facilities at their schools.
Water Diseases
• 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water
• Waterborne diseases (the consequence of a combination of lack of clean water supply and inadequate sanitation) cost the Indian economy 73 million working days per year.
• It is estimated that pneumonia, diarrhea, tuberculosis and malaria, which account for 20\% of global disease burden, receive less than one percent of total public and private funds devoted to health research.
• If we did nothing other than provide access to clean water, without any other medical intervention, we could save 2 million lives a year.
• The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.(Source: www.water.org)
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 12 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and the promise of“climate-smart” agriculture.



As Himalayan Glaciers Melt,
Two Towns Face the Fallout

For two towns in northern India, melting glaciers have had very different impacts — one town has benefited from flowing streams and bountiful harvests; but the other has seen its water supplies dry up and now is being forced to relocate.

Designing Wetlands to Remove
Drugs and Chemical Pollutants

Drinking water supplies around the world often contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and synthetic compounds that may be harmful to human health. One solution being tried in the U.S. and Europe is to construct man-made wetlands that naturally degrade these contaminants.

On the River Nile, a Move to
Avert a Conflict Over Water

Ethiopia’s plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile have sparked tensions with Egypt, which depends on the river to irrigate its arid land. But after years of tensions, an international agreement to share the Nile’s waters may be in sight.

How Climate Change Helped
Lead to the Uprising in Syria

A new study draws links between a record drought in Syria and the uprising that erupted there in 2011. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Colin Kelley, the study’s lead author, discusses how the severity of that drought was connected to a long-term warming trend in the region.

In Kenya’s Mountain Forests,
A New Path to Conservation

Kenya’s high-elevation forests are the source for most of the water on which the drought-plagued nation depends. Now, after decades of government-abetted abuse of these regions, a new conservation strategy of working with local communities is showing signs of success.


MORE IN Analysis

How Long Can Oceans Continue
To Absorb Earth’s Excess Heat?

by cheryl katz
The main reason soaring greenhouse gas emissions have not caused air temperatures to rise more rapidly is that oceans have soaked up much of the heat. But new evidence suggests the oceans’ heat-buffering ability may be weakening.

With Fins Off Many Menus,
A Glimmer of Hope for Sharks

by ted williams
For decades, the slaughter of sharks – sought after for their fins and meat – has been staggering. But bans on finning and new attitudes in Asia toward eating shark fin soup are leading to optimism about the future for these iconic ocean predators.

As Extreme Weather Increases,
A Push for Advanced Forecasts

by cheryl katz
With a warmer atmosphere expected to spur an increase in major storms, floods, and other wild weather events, scientists and meteorologists worldwide are harnessing advanced computing power to devise more accurate, medium-range forecasts that could save lives and property.

Could Global Tide Be Starting
To Turn Against Fossil Fuels?

by fred pearce
From an oil chill in the financial world to the recent U.S.-China agreement on climate change, recent developments are raising a question that might once have been considered unthinkable: Could this be the beginning of a long, steady decline for the oil and coal industries?

Can Green Bonds Bankroll
A Clean Energy Revolution?

by marc gunther
To slow global warming, tens of trillions of dollars will need to be spent in the coming decades on renewable energy projects. Some banks and governments are issuing green bonds to fund this transformation, but major questions remain as to whether this financing tool will play a game-changing role.

What Is the Carbon Limit?
That Depends Who You Ask

by fred pearce
Scientists are offering widely varying estimates of how much carbon we can emit into the atmosphere without causing dangerous climate change. But establishing a so-called carbon budget is critical if we are to keep the planet a safe place to live in the coming century.

Beyond Treaties: A New Way of
Framing Global Climate Action

by fred pearce
As negotiators look to next year’s UN climate conference in Paris, there is increasing discussion of a new way forward that does not depend on sweeping international agreements. Some analysts are pointing to Plan B — recasting the climate issue as one of national self-interest rather than global treaties.

Oil Companies Quietly Prepare
For a Future of Carbon Pricing

by mark schapiro and jason scorse
The major oil companies in the U.S. have not had to pay a price for the contribution their products make to climate change. But internal accounting by the companies, along with a host of other signs, suggest that may soon change — though the implications of a price on carbon are far from clear.

Can Carbon Capture Technology
Be Part of the Climate Solution?

by david biello
Some scientists and analysts are touting carbon capture and storage as a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change. But critics of the technology regard it as simply another way of perpetuating a reliance on fossil fuels.

Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq,
A Battle for Control of Water

by fred pearce
Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Badru's Story
Badru’s Story, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest, documents the work of African researchers monitoring wildlife in Uganda's remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Watch the video.