2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water at home; rural-urban gap persists

The WHO and UNICEF report finds significant inequalities in basic water, sanitation and hygiene services

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 21 July 2017

Every three out of 10 people globally lack access to safe drinking water at home. Credit: Wikimedia CommonsToo many people still lack access to safe drinking water and safely managed sanitation, particularly in rural areas. This is the overriding conclusion of the latest Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report by the WHO and UNICEF titled 'Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and Sustainable Development Goal baselines'.

According to the report, which includes estimates for 96 countries on safely managed drinking water and 84 countries on safely managed sanitation, every three out of 10 people globally lack access to safe drinking water at home and six in 10 people lack safely managed sanitation. This is the first global assessment of “safely managed” drinking water and sanitation services.

Significant inequalities persist

The report has found huge gaps in services between urban and rural areas with two out of three people with safely managed drinking water and three out of five people with safely managed sanitation services living in urban areas. Out of 161 million people using untreated surface water (lakes, rivers or irrigation channels) 150 million live in rural areas.

The situation is in sharp contrast to what the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim at achieving: "reducing inequalities between and within countries", ending open defecation and ensuring universal access to basic services by 2030.

There are not only significant inequalities in basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and open defecation between regions and between countries within each region, but also within individual countries between urban and rural areas. Angola, for example, has relatively high coverage of basic drinking water compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is a 40 percentage point gap between urban and rural areas within the country.

Although the proportion of global population practising open defecation decreased from 20 per cent to 12 per cent between 2000 and 2015, in rural areas, it has been declining at a rate of just 0.7 percentage points per year. In fact, poor sanitation and contaminated water are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid, which kill 361,000 children under five every year.

Credit: UNICEF and WHO

Touching upon the progress of Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, the report observed that this pan-India programme “recognizes the need to go beyond reporting infrastructure coverage, and is conducting population-based surveys to determine household use of sanitation facilities”. While more than 205,000 villages, 149 districts and five States had reported themselves to be open-defecation free (ODF) as of June 2017, questions have been raised on the way this programme has been implemented.

Rich-poor gaps are generally larger for sanitation than for drinking water or hygiene. Credit: UNICEF ad WHO

According to the new report, even access to water and soap for handwashing varies immensely in the 70 countries with available data. While 76 per cent of people in western Asia and northern Africa have the access to water and soap, the percentage dips to 15 in sub-Saharan Africa.

Key findings in figures

  • 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home
  • 4.5 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation
  • 2.3 billion people do not have basic sanitation services
  • 844 million people do not have even a basic drinking water service
  • 263 million people spend over 30 minutes per trip collecting water from sources outside the home
  • 159 million people still drink untreated water from surface water sources like streams or lakes
  • 90 countries have made very little progress towards basic sanitation and they are unlikely to achive universal coverage by 2030
  • 892 million people—mostly in rural areas—defecate in the open

"Safe water, sanitation and hygiene at home should not be a privilege of only those who are rich or live in urban centres," says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "These are some of the most basic requirements for human health, and all countries have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can access them," he adds.

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