Goal of improving access to safer water already met: UN

NGO employees distributing water containers to families before they are transported to Wau in South Sudan, in Khartoum March 1, 2012.

UNITED NATIONS - Developing countries have already achieved their 2015 goal of drastically reducing the number of people without regular access to improved drinking water, though much of the credit lies with India and China, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The United Nations UNICEF children's fund and World Health Organization (WHO) said in a joint report that while the U.N. goal of slashing by half the number of people without cleaner water had been reached early, the target for achieving a similar improvement in sanitation by 2015 would not likely be met.

"Some regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, are lagging behind," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the report."Many rural dwellers and the poor often miss out on improvements to drinking water and sanitation." "Reducing these disparities must be a priority," he said.

The aims of improving access to clean water and sanitation are part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000 to fight poverty, hunger and disease in poor countries.

Over 2 billion people gained access to what the United Nations describes as "improved" water sources between 1990 and 2010, with the percentage of the world's population still using clearly unsafe water sources now only 11 per cent, down from 24 per cent in 1990, the UNICEF/WHO report said.

There is, however, a caveat in the report. While the original Millennium Development Goals spoke of access to safe drinking water, the UNICEF/WHO report refers to access to"improved" water sources - an important difference.

The report defines improved water sources as those protected from outside contamination, particularly fecal matter, though the water they contain may not actually be safe for drinking.

"It is likely that the number of people using safe water supplies has been overestimated," the report cautions.

There are also significant geographic disparities. While 90 per cent or more people have access to improved drinking water in Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa and much of Asia, only 61 per cent have sustained access to safer water sources in sub-Saharan Africa.

SANITATION TARGET UNLIKELY TO BE MET

Overall in the developing world, 86 per cent have regular access to safer water. But in the poorest countries - those labeled as "least developed" - only 63 per cent have better water.

That means that the drinking water target has not been met for more than 780 million people, the report said.

Last week the World Bank said developing countries appear to have already met the U.N. goal of halving extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries by 2015, thanks mainly to China's economic boom.

Similary, China, along with India, accounts for much of the improvement regarding access to water.

"The progress of India and China ... represents nearly half of the global progress towards the drinking water target," the report said. "If only the developing world is considered, China and India represent more than half of the people who have gained access."

This was not surprising, the report said, since the two countries account for 46 per cent of the developing world's population.

Although there has been improvement in the related goal of improving access to proper sanitation, the developing world is not on track to meet that target.

"Globally, 63 per cent of the population use improved sanitation facilities, an increase of almost 1.8 billion people since 1990," the report said.

At the current rate of progress, the report said, 67 per cent of the world will have access to better sanitation, which falls below the agreed 2015 goal of 75 per cent.

"With diarrheal diseases caused by inadequate sanitation now the biggest killer of children in Africa, progress has to improve," Barbara Frost, the head of the campaign group WaterAid, said in a statement about the U.N. report.