Good News and Bad News: Evaluating Progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals for Safe Water and Sanitation
Ralph Morris, MD, MPH

In September, 2000, world leaders gathered in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, a resolution to reduce extreme poverty by meeting a series of time-sensitive goals known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Included in these goals is the target of halving by 2015 the proportion of the world population that lacked sustainable access to safe drinking water in 1990.  Another is halving by 2015 the percentage of the population that lacked sustainable access to basic sanitation in 1990.  Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed mixed progress against drinking water and sanitation targets in its World Health Statistics 2011 report

Good News:  Global access to improved drinking water has increased 10%.

Between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of the world’s population with access to improved drinking water sources increased from 77 to 87 percent.  Given the current rate of improvement, WHO estimates the target for safe drinking water will likely be met by 2015. Nevertheless, 884 million people, mostly in rural areas, still depend on unimproved water sources.

According to a water.org fact sheet, half of the world’s hospitalizations are due to water-related diseases, and waterborne diseases account for 1.4 million children’s deaths each year.

Bad News:  2.6 billion people lack improved sanitation facilities, including over 1.1 billion people with no access to toilets or sanitation facilities of any kind.

According to a water.org fact sheet, more people in the world have cellphones than access to a toilet! Progress on sanitation is insufficient, and if current trends continue, this UN target will not be met.  Education efforts are being made in developing countries where children are taught hygiene in schools, with the expectation that they will impart sanitary practices to others in their families (see video), but more work is needed.

The Path Forward

Unsafe water supplies and inadequate levels of sanitation and hygiene increase the incidence of serious transmissible diseases, such as cholera, schistosomiasis, trachoma and hepatitis. The WHO report states that diarrheal diseases are some of the biggest killers of children under five years old, accounting for 15% of all deaths  in 2008.  The African and Southeast Asian regions experience the highest burden of mortality from these diseases.

The 2009 impactful “Good:  Drinking Water” You Tube video creatively animates the global risks and the interconnectedness of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation.  The video makes the point that water is both a source of life and death on the Earth.  Online communications, such as this video, help raise awareness of this very basic global health issue and the value of affordable water treatment solutions, such as chlorine tablets, that can be implemented at very low cost, but to great gain.

Ralph Morris, MD, MPH, is a Physician and Preventive Medicine and Public Health official living in Bemidji, MN.

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