MDG target on water met, but the devil is in the detail

At Tearfund we’ve been doing advocacy on water, sanitation and hygiene for nearly 15 years now, and ‘good news’ days are few and far between in terms of progress against the MDGs. However, today is one of those days.

The latest monitoring data was published today by WHO and UNICEF, reporting that the world has met the MDG target on water – to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water. This is definitely good news! Especially for the 2 billion people that have gained access between 1990 and 2010[1]. The fact that this was achieved 5 years ahead of the MDG deadline of 2015, is timely news; just ahead of World Water Day on 22nd March and a month later, the next high level meeting of the global partnership ‘‘Sanitation and Water for All’.

Yet, the devil is in the detail. Notwithstanding the fact that 783 million people are still without access to safe water – over 10% of the global population – the figures hide various disparities of progress across and within countries. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than 40% of the global population without access to improved drinking water.

However, with diarrhoea being the biggest cause of death among children in Africa– we must not forget that the twin target of reducing the proportion of people without access to sanitation is far from being met. Although off track globally, it’s in Africa where the statistics are most startling: at current rates of progress, sub Saharan Africa won’t meet the target on sanitation for another two centuries. I’m still astounded at how this can be the case in such ‘modern’ times.

When talking about the billions of people affected by lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation, it’s all too easy to forget the human impact and daily grind this means in practice. When in Haiti recently, I was reminded of the fast pace at which cholera can spread and the devastating death toll it leaves in its wake.  Indeed, as the WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan has reflected “today, even with this exciting new progress, almost 10 per cent of all diseases are still linked to poor water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Whilst today has brought encouraging news of the MDG progress, this is no time to sit on our laurels – much work remains to be done. The ‘Sanitation and Water for All’ partnership mentioned above, aims to garner the much needed political and financial priority required so that everyone in the world has access to sanitation and water. It’s crucial that donors and developing countries alike step up to the mark and show the leadership, backed up with action, that’s required.


[1] There is a 2 year lag between data collection in 2010 and publishing the report

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