World Likely to Miss Clean Water Goals

GENEVA, Switzerland, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - The world is unlikely to meet its pledge to cut in half the number of people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

The pledge will go unmet absent a dramatic increase in the pace of work and investment over the next decade, the report warns, as rapid urbanization and population growth are putting increased pressure on the provision of services and the health of the poor.

The sanitation goal will not be met without a doubling of current efforts, according to the report, and a one-third increase in efforts will be needed to meet the drinking water target.

"It is a tragedy that the world may not reach the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goals," said Dr Anders Nordström, WHO acting director-general. "Efforts to prevent death from diarrhoea and other diseases are doomed to failure unless people have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation."

More than 1.1 billion people in both urban and rural areas currently lack access to drinking water from an improved source, the report found, and 2.6 billion people do not have access to even basic sanitation.

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Children throughout the world suffer most from lack of access to clean water. (Photo courtesy FAO)
It notes that the health impacts can be seen particularly in children, who are at particular risk from water-related diseases such as diarrhoeal and parasitic diseases. Lack of sanitation also increases the risk of outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

WHO estimates that in 2005, 1.6 million children under age 5 died from the consequences of unsafe water and inadequate hygiene.

The world may struggle just to simply maintain the proportion of urban dwellers who have access to an improved source of drinking water and adequate sanitation., the report said.

Currently, 95 percent of city dwellers have access to an improved source of drinking water, while 80 percent have access to sanitation services, but the populations of urban areas in the developing world are growing rapidly.

An estimated 80 percent of people who lack access to an improved drinking water source live in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia and Southern Asia.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still the main focus of concern, according to the report.

Population growth in the past 15 years has caused a 23 percent increase in the number people without access to drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Currently, just 56 percent of the population has access to an improved water supply and only 37 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to basic sanitation in 2004, compared to a global average of 59 percent.

The growing concern about urban populations overshadows gains made in rural areas. Access to drinking water in rural rose from 64 percent to 74 percent since 1990 and access to sanitation services increased from 26 percent to 39 percent.

The report casts further doubt that the lofty goals made in 2000 by the United Nations will be realized. Announced in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) aim to halve global poverty and malnutrition, slash infant and maternal mortality, and boost access to health care and education, all by 2015.

A study released last year by the UN Millennium Project urged developed nations to double their aid to impoverished countries if they intend to fulfill the pledge to cut global poverty in half by 2015.

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Individuals in Nairobi using a machine to desludging latrine pits. (Photo by IRC/Madeleen Wegelin courtesy FAO)

That report called for an investment of 0.54 percent of gross national product from the industrialized world - an investment that would total about 50 cents out of every $100 of income.

But past promises of the world's rich underscore the scope of the shortfall.

Although industrialized nations of the world agreed in 1969 - and again in 2002 - to contribute 0.7 of gross national product (GNP) to development aid, few have come anywhere near to that pledge.

Only five nations - Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden - have met the target, and the overall aid from the industrialized world totals $68.5 billion, a figure equal to only 0.25 of total GNP.

Six other nations have pledged to increase aid to 0.7 of GNP by 2015, but the United States has yet to follow suit.

The United States earmarks only 0.15 percent of its GNP for development aid, a total that equals some $16 billion.

Meeting the water and sanitation targets of the Millennium Development Goals would be one of the most effective means of raising the health and general living standards of many of the world's poor, according to the new WHO/UNICEF report.

"Safe drinking water and basic sanitation are so obviously essential to health that they risk being taken for granted," Nordstram said. "This report underlines the importance of the new WHO strategy on public health and environment to radically reduce the global burden of disease through preventive health measures. Only by tackling the root causes of diseases such as water and sanitation can we reduce the 24 percent global burden of global disease caused by the environment."