Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Flagging global sanitation target threatens other Millennium Development Goals

3 March 2004

The global target of halving the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 is currently out of reach for many countries, said Børge Brende, Chair of the 12th Session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in a special interview with the Bulletin. The Commission is to meet in New York on 14–30 April 2004 to review progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals relating to water, sanitation and human settlements.

“There are major differences in how much progress has been made, both across [the water and sanitation-related] goals and across countries. The least progress has been made on sanitation,” said Brende. “This affects not only other health-related goals but also some non-health-related goals such as poverty reduction and education,” he added.

A report on the status of progress towards the implementation of the targets relating to sanitation will be submitted by UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to the UNCSD in April and will be the first review of sanitation as a stand-alone topic by an intergovernmental body.

Photo: Keystone
A young girl walks to her home in a slum area in New Delhi, India. Nearly 930 million people worldwide now live in slums and this figure is growing at an accelerated rate. Photo: Keystone.

In 2000, 2.4 billion people lacked access to basic sanitation and 1.1 billion people did not have access to safe water supply, according to a report by WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. Whilst progress was made during the 1990s — over one billion people acquired access to improved sanitation and over 900 million people acquired access to improved water supply — population growth has left the gains looking modest when compared with total global coverage.

WHO projections suggest that continuing the rates of progress maintained in the 1990’s could lead to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal for water — to halve the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking-water by 2015.

For the sanitation target, however, the picture is bleaker. Projections indicate that globally the targets will not be achieved and over 2 billion people will still not have access to any type of improved sanitation facility by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, if rates of progress from the 1990’s are maintained, the number of people without sanitation coverage will almost double by 2015.

“Even if the target is achieved, 1. 7 billion people — almost a quarter of humanity — would be left without access to even a simple improved latrine in 2015,” said Dr James Bartram, Coordinator of the Water, Sanitation and Health programme, who is leading input to the UN Secretary-General’s report to be submitted to the UNCSD in April.

Achieving the sanitation target requires extending coverage to an additional 1.9 billion people between 2000 and 2015, taking into account projected population expansion in urban areas. The regions that pose the biggest challenge are South-Central Asia and East Asia where an additional one billion people require access to basic sanitation over the same period. Sub-Saharan African countries, where roughly one in two people do not have access to improved sanitation, will need to extend coverage between 2000 and 2015 to an additional 355 million people.

For all regions, access to sanitation in rural areas is much worse than in urban areas. In 2000, only 15% of India’s rural population of 730 million had sanitation coverage whilst in the same year 600 million people living in rural China had no access to basic sanitation.