Sunday, April 27, 2014

UN's safe drinking water target was never really met

By Fred Pearce

Put the champagne away. Hundreds of millions of people do not, after all, have access to safe drinking water. The new millennium's first great "mission accomplished" for public health turns out to have been a figment of the United Nations's imagination.

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that a UN Millennium Development Goal – to "halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water" between 1990 and 2015 – had been met. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon hailed "a great achievement for the people of the world".

But now the WHO's official journal has admitted that the claim does not stand up.

The problem is that we don't have global data on the cleanliness of drinking water, say Joe Brown of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and his colleagues. So the WHO redefined the health goal as an engineering goal: to halve those without access to "improved" water supplies.

Unclear water In practice, that encouraged governments to meet the targets by delivering the same dirty water in new pipes. People receiving dirty river water one hour a day down a pipe were counted as having water that was as safe as a householder in London or New York.

"It is quite unreasonable to assume that 'improved' equals 'safe'," says Brown. "The WHO has been silent about this."

New Scientist reported at the time that some public health professionals did not believe that the UN had met its goal. An earlier study had estimated that 50,000 African boreholes, pumps and wells were lying derelict.

Since 2012, evidence has accumulated that many piped water supplies installed to meet the target are unsafe. For instance, Mark Sobsey of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill reported last year that, in the Dominican Republic, "47 per cent of improved drinking water sources were of high to very-high risk water quality, and therefore unsafe for drinking" (The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, DOI: 10.4269/ajtmh.13-0380).

Still off target As many as 1.8 billion people, a quarter of the world's population, may lack access to safe water, more than double the 783 million estimated by the WHO. Sobsey has estimated that the world is still 700 million off meeting the UN goal.

"We are well aware of the issues raised in the new paper," says Bruce Gordon, the WHO's head of water and sanitation for health. "The Millennium Development Goal targets as measured by improved sources have been met, but many more [people] are likely to lack access to reliable safe water."

The WHO hopes to do better monitoring in future, using new low-cost kits for rapid assessment of water quality.

Journal reference: Bulletin of the World Health Organization, DOI: 10.2471/BLT.13.119594
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