Monday, 12 March 2012

In Focus - Water and Sanitation

Last week it was announced that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target relating to clean water had been reached, meaning that the United Nations has managed to halve the number of people without access to clean drinking water. This is a huge success – access to clean water has significant benefits to other areas of life. It improves community health, increases the amount of time children can spend in school (rather than collecting water), it allows women to spend more time generating income rather than walking kilometres each day and reduces the danger they put themselves in through doing so. Over the past twenty years around two billion people have gained access to clean water supplies – this equates to just-under 274,000 people a day, over the past twenty years.

This work wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous contribution of a wide range of disciplines, technical skills, lobbying organisations, Governments and funders. Geologists have played their important role, in providing some of the technical knowledge and skills required for implementing water projects.

As has been noted on a number of other blogs and statements (Tearfund & WaterAid), while this is a time to celebrate it is not a time to slow down. There are a number of points worth looking at:

(1) Having worked with communities in water-poverty in East Africa it is important to note that the speed of poverty-reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa is significantly slower than other regions – with around 40% of those people still in water poverty living in Sub-Saharan Africa. There must now be a focus on this great continent, with DFID and other major donors pushing ahead to see universal access to clean water.

(2) The percentage of people lacking access to clean water can only be an estimate, and is likely to fluctuate. Wells and other water sources can break; shallow wells can dry out, and over abstraction of water can lead to salt-water intrusion and well contamination. The funding of water sources must go hand in hand with the funding of water management training, effective operation and maintenance training, and the development of local hydrogeologists to monitor and manage the abstraction of groundwater. It simply isn’t good enough to go and put water sources in communities without the investment in building technical capacity of the local communities, government engineers and geologists.

(3) The MDG relating to water also included a target for sanitation, which is one of the MDG targets most off-target. At current rates, Sub Saharan Africa will take another two centuries to meet their target on sanitation. This is a major problem, and must be addressed by world governments and international institutions. The provision of toilets, sanitation facilities, and sanitation training is fundamental to reducing the burden of preventable diseases. Good hygiene training is also essential.

We hope that this news does not make Governments get complacent about this fundamentally important issue, but causes them to see what can be achieved by an investment in this sector and take a further push to see an end to this tragedy in the very near future. Why not take time to write to your local MP as we approach World Water Day (22nd March) to urge them to take the further action required to bring universal access to water and sanitation.