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.

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.


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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.”