New WHO/UNICEF Report Assesses Water Supply & Sanitation

Report finds number of people lacking access to improved drinking water has fallen below one billion for first time since 1990

A new report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation assesses global, regional and country progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Target 7c on drinking water supply and sanitation.

More than 2.5 billion people suffer from a lack of access to improved sanitation and nearly 1.2 billion practice open defecation, according to the report, titled "Progress on drinking water and sanitation - special focus on sanitation," which comes halfway through the International Year of Sanitation.

The report assesses progress using an innovative "ladder" concept, which shows sanitation practices in greater detail, enabling experts to highlight trends in using improved, shared and unimproved sanitation facilities and the trend in open defecation. "Improved sanitation” refers to any facility that hygienically separates human waste from the environment.

Similarly, the “drinking water ladder” shows the percentage of the world population that uses water piped into a dwelling, plot or yard, and other improved water sources such as hand pumps, and unimproved sources.

The number of people worldwide who lack access to an improved drinking water source (protected from fecal and chemical contamination) has fallen below one billion for the first time since data were first compiled in 1990. At present, 87% of the world population has access to improved drinking water sources, and current trends suggest that more than 90% will do so by 2015.

The report also highlights disparities within national borders, particularly between rural and urban dwellers. Worldwide, there are four times as many people in rural areas—approximately 746 million—without improved water sources, compared to some 137 million urban dwellers.

The number of people practicing open defecation dropped from 24% in 1990 to 18% in 2006. More and more people are now using improved sanitation facilities, which ensure human excreta are disposed of in a way that prevents them from causing disease by contaminating food and water sources.

Though the practice of open defecation is on the decline worldwide, 18% of the world's population, totaling 1.2 billion people, still practice it. In southern Asia, some 778 million people still rely on this risky sanitation practice.

"We have today a full menu of low-cost technical options for the provision of sanitation in most settings," said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. "More and more governments are determined to improve health by bringing water and sanitation to their poorest populations. If we want to break the stranglehold of poverty, and reap the multiple benefits for health, we must address water and sanitation."

Real improvements in access to safe drinking water have occurred in many countries in southern Africa. According to the report, seven of the 10 countries that have made the most rapid progress and are on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal targets related to drinking water, are in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Namibia and Uganda. Of the countries not yet on track to meet the sanitation target, but making rapid progress, five are in sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Cameroon, Comoros, Mali and Zambia.


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