Whew! It's about time for some good news in the water world! I thought those of us in the hydrophilanthropic community were on the verge of closing up our shops because of the progress towards the Millennium Development Goal dealing with access to safe drinking water. Such progress was being made, right?
Why, here's what the Joint Monitoring Programme 2012 report said in its Foreword [italicized emboldening mine]:
Since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation has reported on progress towards achieving Target 7c: reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This report contains the welcome announcement that, as of 2010, the target for drinking water has been met.
Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources. This achievement is a testament to the commitment of Government leaders, public and private sector entities, communities and individuals who saw the target not as a dream, but as a vital step towards improving health and well-being.
Of course, much work remains to be done. There are still 780 million people without access to an improved drinking water source. And even though 1.8 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, the world remains off track for the sanitation target. It is essential to accelerate progress in the remaining time before the MDG deadline, and I commend those who are participating in the Sustainable Sanitation: Five Year Drive to 2015.
Sarcasm aside, what's the problem? Note that the adjective 'safe' is used in Target 7c, but in the rest of the passage 'improved' is used. The two words are not synonyms.
So what's the difference? 'Improved' simply means some kind of infrastructure is used to access the water. This could be something as basic as a pipe in the ground, spring box, borehole with a hand pump, or municipal supply, etc. It does not mean that the water is safe to drink. Big difference! I've seen 'improved' water - from taps, even - that I would never let pass between my lips!
Why bring this up? Well, Ned Breslin just sent me the link to a paper (from last March, actually) suggesting that perhaps 1.8 billion people do not have access to drinking water that is safe in the sanitary (i.e., no fecal contamination) sense:
Onda, K.; LoBuglio, J.; Bartram, J . Global Access to Safe Water: Accounting for Water Quality and the Resulting Impact on MDG Progress. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2012, 9, 880-894. [free download]
Here is the abstract:
Monitoring of progress towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) drinking water target relies on classification of water sources as “improved” or “unimproved” as an indicator for water safety. We adjust the current Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) estimate by accounting for microbial water quality and sanitary risk using the only-nationally representative water quality data currently available, that from the WHO and UNICEF “Rapid Assessment of Drinking Water Quality”. A principal components analysis (PCA) of national environmental and development indicators was used to create models that predicted, for most countries, the proportions of piped and of other-improved water supplies that are faecally contaminated; and of these sources, the proportions that lack basic sanitary protection against contamination. We estimate that 1.8 billion people (28% of the global population) used unsafe water in 2010. The 2010 JMP estimate is that 783 million people (11%) use unimproved sources. Our estimates revise the 1990 baseline from 23% to 37%, and the target from 12% to 18%, resulting in a shortfall of 10% of the global population towards the MDG target in 2010. In contrast, using the indicator “use of an improved source” suggests that the MDG target for drinking-water has already been achieved. We estimate that an additional 1.2 billion (18%) use water from sources or systems with significant sanitary risks. While our estimate is imprecise, the magnitude of the estimate and the health and development implications suggest that greater attention is needed to better understand and manage drinking water safety.
The authors deal with safety in the sanitary senses, not in the chemical (e.g., arsenic, fluoride, etc.) sense. Keep in mind that their numbers should not be carved in stone. But I believe that their figures are better than those reported by the JMP and that the problem is worse than reported.
Not good news. Lots more work to do.
"While these estimates are imprecise, their magnitude and health and development implications suggest that greater attention is needed to better understand and manage the problem of contamination of improved water sources." - Kyle Onda, et al., from their article, p. 892