ASIT K. BISWAS: Founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico & Distinguished visiting professor of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.
This is the third guest post from Asit Biswas. We post it with the permission of the initial publisher of the text, The Business Times, Singapore. Many thanks to The Business Times, and thanks to Asit for once again bringing up a rather thorny issue of ‘improved’ versus ‘safe water’. Other sources come to similar conclusions: According to Aquafed (pdf document), for instance, at least 1.9 billion people use water that is unsafe and dangerous for their health, while 3.4 billion people use water of doubtful quality, at least from time to time. The questions comes up, therefore, whether for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals it will be enough to continue aiming for ‘improved’ water, or whether we should already now move to the next stage and include truly safe drinking water as one of the targets. Here is Asit’s text.
At present, according to studies carried out by the 'Third World Centre for Water Management', at least three billion people, and possibly as many as 3.6 billion people, still do not have access to clean drinking water.
There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs.
The global water situation has been progressively getting worse for the past several decades, not because there is not enough water in the world but because prevailing water management practices and processes have been consistently poor everywhere. Over the years, they have improved only incrementally.
Take the oft‐quoted fact that the world has met its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) in safe domestic water availability some three years before the target date. This MDG stipulates that the number of people in the world who do not have access to safe water should be reduced by half between 1990 and 2015. But the concept of “clean” or “safe” water has been basically lost during the MDG discussions. The two leading United Nations institutions – the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – came out with a new terminology: “improved” sources of water.
For all practical purposes, WHO and UNICEF, who are responsible to monitor the status of global progress in the areas of water supply and sanitation, left the countries to define arbitrarily what constitutes “improved” sources of water. As a result, most developing countries decided to define sources of water as “improved” so long as the people had access to it, irrespective of its quality and quantity available, or even whether water is supplied is fit for direct human consumption. WHO studies clearly show the shortfalls of this approach.
A number of UN institutions, World Bank and regional development banks further obfuscated the problem by referring to at the beginning of their reports “improved” sources of water and then later on consistently refer to it as “clean” or “safe” water. By using the terms “clean” or “safe” significantly more often than “improved” sources of water, the international organisations have created an illusion that “only” 783 million people in the world “do not have access to clean water” at present.
The UN System accepted this data without any qualms and published such dubious information in their regular assessments. For example, Progress in Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2013 Update notes that Egypt had 100 per cent piped water in all its urban premises in 2011. The corresponding figures for China were 95 per cent, Mexico 94 per cent, Congo 64 per cent and India 51 per cent. Any intelligent and perceptive tourist, who has spent even a week in any of these countries, will dispute these highly inflated self-serving figures which are nowhere near the truth.
Developing countries provide the data to UNICEF and WHO. However, when the same information is printed in an UN document, they proudly proclaim that the “UN figures” show the remarkable improvements their governments have achieved. These misleading figures have suited both UN System and countries well since they show the situation to be significantly better than what they are really on the ground.
Consider South Asia as a whole, a region of over 1.7 billion people. Neither the UN nor the countries can show even one reasonable size urban centre where its inhabitants receive clean water that can be drunk directly from the taps. What is even worse is that in cities such as New Delhi or Dhaka, a decade ago, people were using simple carbon filters to treat their water before drinking. Water pollution has progressively become so severe now that the citizens of such megacities are forced to use membranes to clean water before they can consider it safe for drinking.
Regrettably, not only the various UN bureaucrats but also politicians all over the world are simply parroting these grossly erroneous figures. Academics are taking them for granted. Consequently, the consensus global thinking at present is that the water supply and sanitation situations in the developing world are significantly better than what they are on the ground.
The writer is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co‐founder of Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico.