Last week, I signed on to support UNICEF’s programs for water, sanitation and hygiene. On the same day, UNICEF announced that the Millennium Development Goal on drinking water had been met, and that now 89% of the world’s population has access to drinking water.
I thought I had joined too late, when I was no longer needed!
There is no doubt this is a remarkable achievement. But if you read the WHO/UNICEF Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012 report carefully, it also means 11% of the world has no access to improved drinking water sources – more than 780 million people. For me and for UNICEF, this means we will have a lot to work on together.
On sanitation, the picture is even bleaker. Approximately two and a half billion people do not have access to improved sanitation facilities.
Surprisingly, those left behind are not only from poor countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, accounts for less than half of the population still without water and sanitation.
In reality, people in the big economic powerhouses are falling behind too. China and India, with vibrant and growing economies, together have over one third of all the people in the world. They have the means to make progress and have done so. Since 1990, 522 million people in India, and 457 million in China gained access to improved water sources, and so they account for nearly half of the global progress towards the MDG target. And more than 95% of the progress on sanitation in Eastern Asia is due to China.
But I was shocked to realize that 119 million people in China and 97 million people in India still do not have access to safe drinking water. Even more astonishingly, roughly half the population of India, 626 million people, have no sanitation facilities, and have to resort to open defecation. In fact the number of people who practice open defecation in India is more than twice the number in the next 18 countries combined. In Russia, 40 million people don’t have access to what the UN calls “improved” sanitation, and neither do 40 million people in Brazil.
UNICEF has been talking about equity for some time now, and when I see the water and sanitation figures I totally get what they mean.
While the richest members of the population in many countries are enjoying the fruits of progress, the poorest are still living in the last century, with the same challenges their grandparents faced.
Far away from the glittering lights of Bollywood, and the industrial parks of Hyderabad, the poor children of rural communities in India are dying of preventable diarrhea, defecating in the open, and getting their drinking water from dirty ponds, pools and rivers. Similarly, while in Chengdu or Shenzhen, China, those manufacturing computers may take progress for granted, in the hinterland, the children of poor farmers still have no drinking water.
I am not trying to throw bricks at India, China, or the others, but basically saying that even in countries with adequate financial resources many people are lagging behind.
Unless we target the hardest to reach, and the most disadvantaged, they will continue to miss out on the benefits of progress. The report shows that it is the poorest people, mostly living in rural areas, who are falling through the cracks into an abyss of neglect.
In a 2010 resolution, the UN recognized safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right — meaning they should be available to every person. But there is still a long way to go in order to fulfill the promise implicit in the resolution.
So, yes, great progress has been made. This is certainly a time to evoke a sense of hope from that progress. But, as UNICEF has said, it is not a time to declare victory. Now is the time to put our energies in the final push to ensure that every person — most especially including every child—has clean water and adequate sanitation facilities. It is the right thing to do.