In 2000, in the framework of Millennium Development Goal n° 7, the international community pledged to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to these essential services by 2015. While real progress has been achieved in access to drinking water, there are more mixed results for sanitation.What lessons can be learned from the implementation of the MDG in the water and sanitation sector? How can universal access to water be achieved in developing countries faced with threats like urbanization, demographic growth and climate change?  Gerard Payen, Member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation,  shares his analysis and recommendations with you.

© United Nations
© United Nations

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What lessons can be learned from the implementation of the MDG in the water and sanitation sector?

In the water sector, the Millennium Development Goals program has shown the extraordinary influence of a global policy that does not only use words, but is also based on numerical indicators for which the progress towards a target date is measurable, measured and discussed publically. There are two water-related MDG targets, one for access to drinking water, another one for access to decent toilets. In both cases, the corresponding indicators are now known and discussed during all the international debates and in all national policies. The fact that results are published regularly stimulates the debates and allows the lags to be identified, or the countries that do not put sufficient means, and this can therefore stimulate concrete improvements.

This use of numerical indicators has had three unexpected consequences related to the efforts to improve international statistics. The research to measure access to safe drinking water has shown an underestimation of a factor of at least 3 of the number of people using contaminated water that is dangerous for their health. In the sanitation sector, the publication of information that was available in a patchy manner, and not public, showed all the decision-makers the scale of the problem of open defecation. In both cases, this awareness has made it possible to reorient action. The improvement in statistics since 2000 has also shown that access to drinking water and sanitation is declining in cities, but the international community continues to ignore this subject and for the moment there has been no serious reaction.

The MDGs have had a significant impact on the areas they targeted. But in the water sector, their ambition is limited: they only aim at improving access to drinking water and sanitation for people, which is only one of the four main water-related issues.


Will the SDGs be sufficiently ambitious and realistic?

This is, of course, what is sought by everyone who is fighting today for the adoption of a major program of international objectives for sustainable development at the end of 2015. These SDGs must be ambitious; otherwise they will sanction the current shortcomings of policies in a number of areas. But they must not appear to be unrealistic in order not to give a pretext for inaction.

In the water sector, the current proposals are sound and ambitious. This is excellent because water-related challenges are increasing around the world. It is absolutely necessary to do more in terms of providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation for people, managing pollution related to human activities, meeting growing demands for water and limiting the impact of water-related disasters, which we are told will be growing in number. The ultimate objectives may seem ambitious, but they are absolutely essential. How is it possible to imagine that we could accept that billions of people do not have access to safe drinking water? What we have to do now is to define quantified targets for 2030 that are realistic while bringing about a real acceleration in public policies.

The indicators that will be used are essential. We do not know yet exactly what they will be. For universal access to safe drinking water, some would want to target access to uncontaminated water, while others would settle for access to “improved” water sources, meaning not shared with animals, whereas it has now been established that many of them are contaminated. For wastewater management, the indicators proposed by UN-Water are very realistic. The UN is aware of the fact that at global level the monitoring of wastewater management is starting from scratch, and is indeed proposing to measure in each country the proportion of the population connected to a wastewater treatment plant, or which has an individual depollution system. This indicator is less sophisticated than the proportion of wastewater flows that are treated, but the data for this is much more easily accessible in all countries..


How can universal access to water be achieved in developing countries faced with threats like urbanization, demographic growth and climate change?

Universal access to safe drinking water will not happen by itself. In an urbanizing world and where the population is growing, fewer and fewer people can find safe drinking water by themselves. The solutions are necessarily collective and require public policies that target this universal access.

These policies must, of course, address the technical and economic difficulties, but the decisive factor is the priority given to this subject in national and local policies. In countries with similar levels of economic development, the proportion of the population that benefits from satisfactory access to safe drinking water can vary enormously. But the proportion of their respective GDP that they devote to water management also differs enormously from one country to another: as much as one to four times! This is what is at stake with the Sustainable Development Goals. It involves identifying the priority objectives for the world and subsequently, in the interests of consistency, making them political and budgetary priorities in each country, whereas this is far from being the case today for all the main challenges identified.

In the rural half of the world, all the indicators for access to water and sanitation are green. The proportion of the rural population without access to satisfactory services is decreasing. This is unfortunately not the case for the urban half of the world: on average, in cities, public infrastructure cannot manage to develop as rapidly as population growth. The race between the two has today been lost by public authorities (as a global average) and it is necessary to find the means to reverse this trend. In a world where, unfortunately, the population living in slums is constantly increasing, the only way to achieve universal access is to have urban policies that simultaneously target the structured development areas, where the residents settle after the creation of public infrastructure, and informal development areas where the residents settle before all else.

It is possible to supply safe water to people living in slums. I have personally contributed to this in many places. But it is necessary to want to do so and to find a way of overcoming the legal and institutional barriers that often prohibit water operators from setting foot there. The implementation of the human right to safe drinking water requires public authorities to not simply raise issues over the ownership of land or the destination of the latter for a public investment, or of it being a hazardous area, in order to avoid organizing a public service delivery. They must find ways to ensure that safe drinking water is available, even on a temporary basis, in all residential areas.

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