Is improved the same as safe? Meeting the millennium target for drinking water, or not

In the UNICEF and World Health Organization’s March 2012 report, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ban Ki-moon announced that “as of 2010, the target for drinking water has been met”. However, according to a report from the BBC last week, all may not be as it seems. Advisors on water policy in the WHO suggested that between 1 and 4 billion people still may not have access to safe drinking water, considerably more than the 780 million people identified by the report as lacking access to safe and sustainable water supplies.

So is this spin on the part of the UN? Is it worse than that – a deliberate misrepresentation of facts? Sadly, for fans of conspiracy theories, it seems this is more due to problems of definitions, than politicking.

Justifying the claim that the millennium target on drinking water had been met 5 years ahead of schedule, Ban Ki-moon stated: “Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990.” But is ‘improved’ the same as ‘safe’? One can surely assume that the safeness of water must be an essential part of what makes improved water, improved.

Sadly no. Whilst the millennium target is clearly for safe drinking water, the definition of an ‘improved’ water source is based upon the mode of delivery, not on the purity or otherwise of the water itself. It is the supply that is improved, rather than (necessarily) the water that comes out. ‘Improved’ water is that which has been delivered through pipes, from protected springs or a protected dug well, or from a borehole. ‘Unimproved’ sources are from non-piped sources, unprotected wells and surface water and so on. So having water piped to the home or a community access point means those individuals have an improved water supply, thus meeting the millennium target.

The problem is, I think, self-evident. Improved is not the same as safe (in the sense of drinkable). The focus on the pipes is flawed. The water being piped is not necessarily drinkable: it might come from a polluted river or ground water source, bringing the danger right to the door (or tap). Indeed, WHO advisers speaking to the BBC suggested that in some countries, up to 70% of ‘improved’ water is not safe to drink.

Looking more broadly at the implications of this for the MDGs and for broader development programmes, one obvious problem that springs to mind is the issue of data. How can we be sure that the data really speaks to the target in mind? In this case, measuring improved water supplies is easier than measuring water quality for each and every community. But if the real, meaningful target is providing water that is safe to drink, is it sufficient? Shouldn’t we actually be testing water quality as the benchmark? In this case, it appears not.

This is not just about measuring progress towards meeting targets. In setting up a refugee camp, for example, attention will obviously be given water access. If access is judged solely on the presence of piped or otherwise protected sources, then tests may not be done on that water itself. This is not just a hypothetical example: in one instance I am aware of, failure to ask precisely this question led to a cholera outbreak and the death and illness of a number of people.

What we measure and how we report it matters. How do we measure poverty, insecurity, vulnerability, empowerment, etc? And if this matters for how we judge progress to outlined targets, it matters even more for individuals living at the frontline: for if people believe their ‘improved’ water source to be safe, they may end up taking greater risks than when they considered their water source to be potentially harmful. And if those directing interventions do not pay sufficient attention to testing quality rather than focusing on delivery, then death and disease is a real possibility.

It also points to the problems of stated targets, and in particular the presentation of those targets. Whilst those working in the water sector do (and certainly should) understand the differences between ‘safe’ and ‘improved’, it is not so obvious for the interested observer. Indeed, the March report was largely welcomed uncritically by media and other commentators – a rare success to be trumpeted and paraded.

But with public opinion in donor countries increasingly questioning the value and purpose of international development aid, clarity is essential in explaining objectives and targets. The headline objective of MDG 1 is to ‘end extreme poverty and hunger’, although the breakdown of that target into more tangible measurable does not, in fact, talk of ‘ending’, but halving those on less than $1 per day, or suffer from hunger. Obvious to those fully engaged in international development and immersed in the particularities of its language as part of their work. But for those not, are they entitled to ask why the lack of clarity? And how are people to take the news that the target for access to water has been met, if perhaps half of the world population still cannot safely drink the water available to them?

The danger is it creates scepticism over all positive stories in relation to development targets and goals.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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2 Responses to Is improved the same as safe? Meeting the millennium target for drinking water, or not

  1. Peck says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for highlighting the ‘definition’ issue! What crosses my mind reading this article is the almost obvious desire of UN to score a success on an important development issue. I find it hard to think that UN experts can’t differentiate the critical difference between supply and quality of water. Do you think this is a case of the need for UN to be associated with success for the purpose of fund-raising or to maintain its relevance as an agency in the development scene?


    • Hi Peck, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure that this is about UN picking selected targets in order to make claims as to progress. Whilst there may be an element of that (although I suspect it is less so in this specific instance, but certainly an issue more widely), I think it is part of a broader problem of matching targets to data. Targets seem simple: one either achieves it or not. But demonstrating the extent to which it has been achieved becomes harder, the more complex the issue underlying the target is. In the case of providing people with drinking water, the hitting or not question might be slightly less muddy. But the question is how to move to providing drinkable water, so the focus on ‘improved’ sources becomes important. With UPE – again one could relatively easily demonstrate the extent to which this has been achieved. But if the goal (rather than the specific target) is to expand the number of children with a good education, UPE in itself isn’t necessarily enough. Do people remain in school for all the years they are meant to? Is the quality of the education good? Is the curriculum relevant to their needs and future potential. So which data should we be looking at? Reducing poverty, again, might become more complex. Certainly one could collect data to give a good idea of the extent to which those living under $2 a day have reduced in number. But isn’t poverty actually a lot more complex than just that issue? Does a snapshot at a particular time tell us the extent to which progress has been sustainable, rather than reflecting a particular period of growth, the decline of which could push people back into poverty?

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