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World Meets Clean Water Goal Ahead of Time

A farmer carrying water collected from a nearly dried-up well climbs a stairs at a village in Xiping county, Yunnan province, February 22, 2012.
A farmer carrying water collected from a nearly dried-up well climbs a stairs at a village in Xiping county, Yunnan province, February 22, 2012.
Lisa Schlein

The world has reached the Millennium Development Goal of cutting by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water, five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. A report by the U.N. Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization says 89 percent of the world’s population, or more than six billion people, now use improved drinking water sources. 

The United Nations reports most people in the world now have access to safe drinking water. It says between 1990 and 2010, more than two billion people gained access to piped water supplies, protected wells and other improved drinking sources.

That is the good news. The bad news, the U.N. says, is that at least 11 percent of the world’s population, or a staggering 783 million people, still are without access to safe drinking water.  

And it says efforts to provide sanitation facilities for billions of poor people are lagging woefully behind. The U.N. says the Millennium Development Goal of providing improved sanitation access to 75 percent of the world’s population by 2015 will not be reached.

By telephone from New York, UNICEF's chief of water, sanitation, and hygiene, Sanjay Wijesekera, says the glass is both half full and half empty.

“More than 3,000 children die every day from diarrheal diseases and it is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa," said Wijesekera. "And…that is due to lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and poor hygiene. So, drinking water and sanitation, apart from being basic human rights, are also a matter of life and death to millions of children around the world.”  

The report highlights that immense challenges remain. It notes there are huge disparities between regions and countries, and within countries. It says over 40 percent of all people globally who lack access to drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Robert Bos is coordinator of the World Health Organization's water, sanitation, hygiene and health unit. He says the poorest people, those who live in remote areas and are hardest to reach, are left out, and that people in countries hit by conflicts or humanitarian crises suffer most from the lack of safe drinking water.  

Bos says funds are essential to make progress, but it is more difficult to get governments to support humanitarian projects in times of financial difficulty. He says he is pleased to see countries continuing to fund safe water projects despite the current global economic crisis.

“Of course, in the analysis of how this money is being spent, we see that there is a lot of money still going to large infrastructural projects," said Bos. "So, people who are in rural areas where basic needs are to be met are still missing out a lot. We also see that there is a lack of overall support for operation and maintenance, and that is very important for the sustainability part of the achievements that we made.”  

The U.N. report notes it is not just the large middle-income countries that have improved water and sanitation for their people. It says some of the poorest countries in the world, which started off at a very low base, have also achieved amazing results.  

For example, it says since 1995, Malawi has provided safe drinking water to half of its population, which is now approaching 15 million. Burkina Faso, it says, has achieved similar results.

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