Part 2 in a series of occasional articles on water

Living in Evanston, it is easy to take it for granted that a turn of the tap brings an abundance of clean water to drink and to use for cooking, bathing and sanitation. But this is not a given in many parts of the world. Indeed, UNICEF reports that nearly 900 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. And 2.6 billion people are without access to basic sanitation.

These headline-grabbing numbers reveal only part of the problem.

• Unclean water and poor sanitation claim the lives of 1.5 million children under 5 years of age every year.

• Ill health resulting from deficits in water and sanitation undermines adult productivity, contributing to extreme poverty and hunger.

• Women and girls in developing countries typically are responsible for collecting drinking water for their families, greatly reducing the time they have for other productive work – and for girls, to attend school. 

World Water Day

International World Water Day, March 22, can help draw much-needed global attention to this critical situation. Held annually since 1993, this event focuses each year on a different aspect of freshwater. The theme of World Water Day 2011 is “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge.” 

In presenting this year’s theme, UN-Water highlighted the following:

• The world’s cities are growing at an exceptional rate, with 93 percent of urbanization occurring in poor or developing countries, and nearly 40 percent of the expansion adding to urban slums.

• Investments in water and sanitation infrastructure have not kept pace with the rate of urbanization.

• Water resources will be significantly affected by climate change, particularly through the impact of floods, droughts and extreme events, resulting in bigger migration to urban areas and increased demands on urban systems.

Millennium Development Goals

World Water Day also encourages an examination of the status of efforts to meet quantifiable targets for access to safe water and sanitation. Targets for these two pressing development issues are included in one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that all United Nations member states adopted in 2000 and pledged to achieve by 2015.

Using 1990 as a benchmark, the MDGs provide concrete, quantifiable targets for tackling extreme poverty in its many dimensions. The water and sanitation goal is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. 

Safe drinking water. The world is on track to meet the MDG target for safe drinking water. A 2010 progress report* finds 87 percent of the world’s population getting its drinking water from “improved” sources – up from 78 percent in 1990. (An improved source is one that is adequately protected from outside contamination.) Other findings of note:

• Only 60 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa uses improved sources of drinking water.

• Only 57 percent of the global population gets its drinking water from a piped connection that provides running water into its dwelling, plot or yard.

• In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 5 percent of the rural population gets water piped to the premises.

• Not all “improved” sources in fact provide drinking water that is safe.

• The increase in access is barely keeping up with urban population growth.

Sanitation. The world is unlikely to meet the MDG target for sanitation. Not quite two-thirds of the world population – 61 percent – uses “improved” sanitation facilities – compared to 49 percent in 1990. (An improved facility ensures hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact.) Other findings of note:

• By far the greatest number of people who do not use improved sanitation are in Southern Asia.

• Progress in the use of improved sanitation is undermined by population growth.

• Urban areas, although better served than rural areas, struggle to keep up with urban population growth.

Gender equality. Meeting the targets for safe water and sanitation will help achieve another MDG: to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education. Improved health and reduced water-carrying burdens will improve school attendance, especially for girls. And having separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys in school increases girls’ attendance, especially after they enter adolescence.  

How Can Evanstonians Help?

• Support organizations working to improve water supplies and basic sanitation, for example, UNICEF’s Tap Project (www.tapproject.org)). During World Water Week (this year, March 20-26), participating restaurants ask patrons to donate $1 or more for the tap water they usually enjoy for free. Funds support UNICEF’s efforts to improve access to safe water and sanitation facilities around the world.

• Encourage policymakers to support foreign aid resources targeted to areas most in need of improved access to safe water and basic sanitation.

Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water: 2010 Update, WHO/UNICEF  (www.wssinfo.org