Access to Safe Water

UN figures released in 2015 presented the access to drinking water target as one of the few success stories of the Millennium Development Goals programme. Aggregate global coverage advanced from 76% to 91% between 1990 and 2015, thereby exceeding the 2015 target of 88%, and in the process adding 2.6 billion people to the relative safety of clean water.

However, the inclusion of rich countries in these statistics masks the lower percentage coverage experienced by much of the developing world. The figure is only 68% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Water everywhere for DR Congo city yet scarce a drop to drink – a typical picture of drinking water issues in an urban area of a fragile state
from AFP News

Publicity surrounding the attainment of one of the MDGs prompted a desire to understand what exactly has been achieved. The wording of the Goal called on governments to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

A source which separates the delivery of drinking water from potential contamination, such as a piped supply or a protected well or spring, is deemed to be “safe”. Interpretation of “access” has varied between countries but generally refers to a household supply of 20 litres that can be fetched within a 30 minute round trip, a distance of about one kilometre.

Given that simple low cost, low maintenance technologies are available to fulfil these undemanding criteria, many observers have questioned why the water MDG did not aspire to universal access. In 2015, 663 million people continued to gamble their health with unsafe drinking water, almost half located in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is also much concern about the absence of qualitative indicators to support these measures of coverage. Apart from deterioration caused by poor maintenance, some regions are prone to chemical pollution (as in China) or natural contamination (as in the arsenic crisis in parts of South Asia).

In recent years, campaigners have achieved breakthroughs in upgrading the global vision for the role of safe water. A resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 recognises “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.” And the Sustainable Development Goal for water, approved in 2015, includes a target to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all (by 2030).” The key indicator to monitor this target insists that the source of water should be “safely managed,” recognising the importance of maintenance.

A new and more demanding indicator will monitor households with a safe and available source of drinking water “located on premises”. In 2015, 2.1 billion people lacked this standard, of which 844 million are unable to enjoy even the “basic service” standard, a source of safe water that can be collected within 30 minutes.


more Water Scarcity briefings (updated April 2018)
Water Cycle
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Water Wars
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