Lack of sanitation holding back drinking water gains, finds WHO report

July 13, 2015
Despite worldwide progress on drinking water access, one in three people, or 2.4 billion people lack sanitation facilities including 946 million people who defecate in the open...

Despite worldwide progress, one in three people, or 2.4 billion people lack sanitation facilities including 946 million people who defecate in the open.

This lack of progress on sanitation threatens to undermine the child survival and health benefits from gains in access to safe drinking water, according to a new report.

A Joint Monitoring Programme report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF entitled Progress on sanitation and drinking water: 2015 update and MDG assessment tracks access to drinking water and sanitation against the Millennium Development Goals.

Access to improved drinking water sources has been a major achievement for countries and the international community, while sanitation progress still lacks behind.

With some 2.6 billion people having gained access since 1990, 91% of the global population now have improved drinking water – and the number is still growing.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 427 million people have gained access – an average of 47,000 people per day every day for 25 years.

The child survival gains have been substantial. Today, fewer than 1 000 children under five die each day from diarrhoea caused by inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene, compared to over 2 000 15 years ago.

On the other hand, the progress on sanitation has been hampered by inadequate investments in behaviour change campaigns, lack of affordable products for the poor, and social norms which accept or even encourage open defecation, the report said.

Although some 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, the world has missed the MDG target by nearly 700 million people. Today, only 68% of the world’s population uses an improved sanitation facility – 9% points below the MDG target of 77%.

“What the data really show is the need to focus on inequalities as the only way to achieve sustainable progress,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. “The global model so far has been that the wealthiest move ahead first, and only when they have access do the poorest start catching up. If we are to reach universal access to sanitation by 2030, we need to ensure the poorest start making progress right away.”

Plans for the new Sustainable Development Goals to be set by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 include a target to eliminate open defecation by 2030. This would require a doubling of current rates of reduction, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, WHO and UNICEF said.

“Until everyone has access to adequate sanitation facilities, the quality of water supplies will be undermined and too many people will continue to die from waterborne and water-related diseases,” said Dr Maria Neira, director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

“To benefit human health it is vital to further accelerate progress on sanitation, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” added Dr Neira.

WHO and UNICEF said it is vitally important to learn from the uneven progress of the 1990-2015 period to ensure that the SDGs close the inequality gaps and achieve universal access to water and sanitation. To do so, the organisations said the world needs:

· Disaggregated data to be able to pinpoint the populations and areas which are outliers from the national averages;

· A robust and intentional focus on the hardest to reach, particularly the poor in rural areas;

· Innovative technologies and approaches to bring sustainable sanitation solutions to poor communities at affordable prices;

· Increased attention to improving hygiene in homes, schools and health care facilities.


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