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Health through safe drinking water and basic sanitation

Goal 7, target 10 of the Millennium Development Goals aims at halving by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

What does sustainable access to safe drinking water & basic sanitation mean?

WHO and UNICEF provide the UN system's monitoring of progress on MDG target 10. The JMP defines safe drinking water and basic sanitation as follows:

  • Drinking water is water used for domestic purposes, drinking, cooking and personal hygiene;
  • Access to drinking water means that the source is less than 1 kilometer away from its place of use and that it is possible to reliably obtain at least 20 litres per member of a household per day;
  • Safe drinking water is water with microbial, chemical and physical characteristics that meet WHO guidelines or national standards on drinking water quality;
  • Access to safe drinking water is the proportion of people using improved drinking water sources: household connection; public standpipe; borehole; protected dug well; protected spring; rainwater.

Basic sanitation is the lowest-cost technology ensuring hygienic excreta and sullage disposal and a clean and healthful living environment both at home and in the neighborhood of users. Access to basic sanitation includes safety and privacy in the use of these services. Coverage is the proportion of people using improved sanitation facilities: public sewer connection; septic system connection; pour-flush latrine; simple pit latrine; ventilated improved pit latrine.

Support to overall achievement of the MDGs

The combination of safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities is a precondition for success in the fight against poverty and hunger (Goal 1), primary education (Goal 2), gender equality and women empowerment (Goal 3), child mortality (Goal 4), maternal health (Goal 5), HIV/AIDS and Malaria (Goal 6), ensure environmental sustainability (Goal 7) and develop global partnerships (Goal 8).

Drinking Water, Sanitation, Health and Disease

About 2.6 billion people – half the developing world – lack even a simple ‘improved’ latrine and 1.1 billion people has no access to any type of improved drinking source of water. As a direct consequence:

  • 1.6 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera) attributable to lack of access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and 90% of these are children under 5, mostly in developing countries;
  • 160 million people are infected with schistosomiasis causing tens of thousands of deaths yearly; 500 million people are at risk of trachoma from which 146 million are threatened by blindness and 6 million are visually impaired;
  • intestinal helminths (ascariasis, trichuriasis and hookworm infection) are plaguing the developing world due to inadequate drinking water, sanitation and hygiene with 133 million suffering from high intensity intestinal helminths infections; there are around 1.5 million cases of clinical hepatitis A every year.

What's needed to reach the target

The MDG target implies a commitment to raise the global drinking water coverage of 77% per cent in 1990 to 88.5% in 2015. During the period 1990-2002 (for which data are available) global coverage rose by 5 per cent, from 77 to 83 per cent. This means that nearly 1 billion people gained access to improved water sources during this period. The global coverage progression from 1990 to 2002 indicates that the MDG drinking water target is likely to be achieved except for sub-Saharan Africa, which lags behind the other developing regions in terms of development towards the target.

Reaching the MDG sanitation target will require an unprecedented effort since 2.6 billion people lacked access to basic sanitation in 2002. Over the period 1990-2002, access to improved sanitation increased by 9 per cent to 58 per cent globally. In order to halve the proportion of people without improved sanitation, global coverage needs to grow to 75 per cent by 2015, from a starting point of 49 per cent in 1990. However, if the 1990-2002 trend continues, the world will miss the sanitation target by more than half a billion people. In other words, close to 2.4 billion people will be without improved sanitation in 2015, almost as many as there are today.

What reaching the goal will mean for health

Meeting the MDG target would avert 470 thousand deaths and result in an extra 320 million productive working days every year. Economic analyses shows that the benefits of investment to achieve the target would be considerable. Depending on the region of the world, economic benefits have been estimated to range from US$ 3 to US$ 34 for each dollar invested.

WHO Efforts

WHO's strategic focus contributing to the world efforts towards the achievement of the water and sanitation target deals with a range of interventions from promotion and advocacy at all levels to country operations targeting the poor and underserved based on a strong and authoritative set of norms and best-practice tools. WHO's programmatic areas of emphasis works with partners and include:

  • global monitoring of the water supply and sanitation sector through the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP), which is the United Nations System instrument used to measure progress at country, regional and global levels in achieving the MDG water and sanitation target;
  • preparation, continuous updating and wide dissemination of the WHO's Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality and other norms which are fundamental to improve the quality of water and sanitation services;
  • pioneering studies comparing the cost of providing or improving water and sanitation services and the health and non-health benefits of the different interventions;
  • promotion of and supporting action on home water treatment through a world-wide network made up of international organizations, research institutes, government staff in different countries, etc;
  • promotion and support to improving hygiene behaviors and gender aspects;
  • strong support to the use of sound approaches towards improving sanitation coverage with technologies which are affordable, effective and environmentally-friendly.

RELATED LINKS

Water, Sanitation and Health at WHO | Millenium Development Goals - Health & Development Policy at WHO
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