This research paper examines the topic of drinking water and sanitation, primarily the current global situation with regard to the many people who don’t enjoy either of those two basic amenities, which many regard as basic human rights, and the progress being made under the auspices of joint initiatives by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) towards improving that situation by set target dates. The research undertaken first collated and summarized some of the quite shocking statistics quantifying the problems. Then there is some basic advice for individuals who might find themselves in a situation without clean water or sanitation facilities. Two articles originally published by The Guardian newspaper discussed the progress towards meeting the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) set by UNICEF and the WHO. An article in the form of an open letter from a UN reporter underlined the need for these amenities to be defined clearly as human rights and stressed that progress must not cease when set targets have been met, but that action should continue until safe water access and sanitation is universal. The final research source describes a case study undertaken in a rural community in Azerbaijan, in a village with no clean water supply and no proper sanitation facilities. The paper concludes with a summary of the research findings and what still needs to be done in these areas.
Drinking Water and Sanitation
Worldwide, there are far too many people who do not have access to safe, clean drinking water or modern sanitation facilities. Those amenities that people in the developed countries take for granted, simply do not exist in many places in the world. And – as the research will show – it is not always the poorest countries where the situation is worst. This paper examines the current progress towards providing everyone with access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation and the targets for making further improvement, as defined by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) previously set jointly by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Some Sobering Facts. The water.org website provided a number of statistics about the problems caused by the widespread lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation for millions of people sharing our planet. In an article entitled simple “Water” (n.d.) it shared shocking facts with us, including the following: every year, 3.4 million people die from diseases related to contaminated water (equivalent to almost the entire Los Angeles population); 740 million have no access to clean water (2.5 times the USA population).
The same website featured another article entitled “Sanitation” (n.d.) which provided some more startling details, including: circa 1.2 billion people lack hygienic sanitary facilities; most of the world’s peoples cannot: draw clean water from a tap; enjoy a hot shower; or have access to a flush toilet (more people have a cellphone than a toilet!).
The article also reported that every year, circa 1.5 million children die from diarrhea – more than “malaria, AIDS and measles combined.” According to the article, two hygiene measures that could reduce that terrible figure are washing hands with soap (over 40 percent reduction) and provision of improved sanitation (over 33 percent).
How to Cope with Bad Water and Poor Sanitation Facilities. An article entitled “A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment and Sanitation for Backcountry & Travel Use” (updated Apr 2009) listed ways to remove the various pathogens, including protozoa, bacteria, and viruses from untreated water sources, and gave some common sense advice to those who might find themselves faced with such water supplies and no proper sanitation facilities. The advice given was that vigorously boiling water for a minimum of 1 full minute should kill all pathogens and is the most reliable method. Also, to achieve good sanitation one should wash hands before handling food or eating and after using a toilet and bury human waste a minimum of eight inches deep and well away from any natural water source (a recommended minimum of 200 feet).
Millennium Development Goals Met. This article by Wijesekara (March 2012) gave some encouraging news, reporting that since 1990 more than 2 billion people have been provided with access to drinking water, many in smaller, less-developed countries such as in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of people who have benefitted is 273 million. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focus primarily on the poorest and most remote communities, underlining the recent declaration by the UN General Assembly that recognized “drinking water and sanitation as basic human rights.”
The article noted that the countries housing most of the 479 million people still said to have no access to drinking water are not necessarily the poorest. For example the largest number live in China (119 million), one of the world’s largest economies. The second highest number without clean water – 97 million – is in India, another prospering economy, and third is Nigeria with 66 million in the same situation.
In contrast, some smaller, poorer countries have achieved great progress in this area. Since 1995 Malawi has provided nearly half the population with access to clean water. Other small nations have made similar progress. As the article stated: “They show that where there is a will, it is possible to truly transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people for the better.”
Global sanitation target under threat. This article by Tran (Apr 2012), also from The Guardian, portrayed a less encouraging picture in respect of goals for improved sanitation. It reported that 57 countries are currently not meeting MDG sanitation targets. According to a UN report, the target of providing improved sanitation for 75 percent of the world’s population will not be met by 2015, and maybe not until 2026. In the case of the sub-Saharan region the forecast is even more pessimistic. Without urgent action, the target is unlikely to be met for 150 years! In conclusion, the article stated that “a doubling of aid” is needed, and that “Access to water and sanitation is indispensable for human development and meeting the MDGs.”
Human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. This United Nations article (June 2012) was issued as an open letter under the name of “Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation” calling on all countries to reiterate that right for everyone. Pointing out that international law recognizes that right, she underlined that it is important for it to be specifically so defined.
As mentioned by others, this article applauded the meeting of the MDG targets in respect of drinking water access, but noted that those targets did not “measure quality or reliability of water.” The article also regretted the failure to meet the equivalent sanitation target, noting that some 2.5 billion people still lack basic toilet facilities. It was also stressed by De Albuquerque that efforts should not slacken because a target has been met, commenting that the aim should be “universal access” within timescales set according to specific national situations and resources.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the previously-existing water and sanitation infrastructure fell into neglect, meaning that many rural communities were forced to provide their own solutions, in which monitoring of water quality is mostly non-existent. The rural area studied is semi-arid with few groundwater sources, leading to poverty and poor health. The Kura River, which provides 70 percent of the country’s drinking water, not only suffers from pollution from industry and agriculture, but lacks wastewater treatment facilities.
Although the 2010 report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF on Sanitation and Drinking Water reported positive progress in respect of increased access to drinking water and to improved sanitation, this case study noted that the WHO and UN standards on drinking water access do not focus on water quality or on ease of access to it.
The target village in this study was Suqovsan, in one of the warmest and driest parts of Azerbaijan. There is no village water supply. There are irrigation canals to which cattle have access and which also take away rainwater, etc, so degrading the quality further. River water for drinking and other hygienic uses is delivered by truck and stored locally in containers each holding about four cubic meters, and in which the water has to be allowed to settle for some time to let sediment sink to the bottom. It is then boiled for drinking, or used “as is” for cooking and washing purposes. Some homes have stone filters that can purify between 20 and 30 liters in a few hours. There is also no sewage system and most homes and schools have pit latrines outside. In some cases these latrines are emptied periodically, and the waste discharged into collector channels, which in turn flow into a major channel some six meters or more wide and 400km long, ultimately discharging (untreated) into the Caspian Sea.
There is a village medical point that has few instruments or bandages, and no water supply or toilet. Diarrhea is common and unless particularly bad, is treated at home. Otherwise, sufferers have to be taken to the hospital in Sabirabad. Nurses at the medical point have no capability to test the water and simply advise the local people to boil water needed for drinking.
Overall, the study findings in respect of the water situation identified the main problems as: Absence of any water purification equipment / facilities, and an inadequately equipped medical point. Local people rated the need for good drinking water as their highest priority.
Analyses of the heavily polluted river water and other local water sources (e.g. household wells) showed very poor water quality, high levels of nitrates and excessive levels of coliform and other bacteria. Recommended measures to improve the situation included: replace open water ditches with pipes; build a small village water treatment plant; stop cattle accessing the water channels; provide households with waste boxes; construct a modern medical center.
The research undertaken has shown that although progress has been made in recent years in global terms, there are still far too many of the world’s peoples having to live without adequate water supplies and with little or no facilities for proper sanitation.
Whilst the MDGs are admirable, more than one research source commented that the targets do not consider water quality or ease of access to it. The featured case study gave some real insights into living in an environment without adequate water supplies or sanitation facilities. It is apparent that more needs to be done if the aim of providing these amenities is to be realized in any reasonable timescale, especially in countries such as China and India who have the financial wherewithal to help themselves to a greater extent. For the poorer countries, aid levels need to be increased to achieve those targets so that even the poorest among us can enjoy those basic human rights.
“A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment and Sanitation for Backcountry & Travel Use.” (Updated Apr 2009). Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/travel/backcountry_water_treatment.html
“Human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” (June 2012). United Nations: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/TheHRsafedrinkingwaterandsanitation.aspx
“No Safe Drinking Water for the Region Sabirabad, Azerbaijan.” (November 2011). Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF). Retrieved from http://www.wecf.eu/download/2012/February/Case_study_Azerbaijan_water_2011.pdf
“Sanitation.” water.org. Retrieved from http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/sanitation/
Tran, M. (Apr 2012). “Global sanitation target under threat.” The Guardian Newspaper (UK). Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/apr/20/global-sanitation-target-under-threat
“Water.” (n.d.). water.org. Retrieved from http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/
Wijesekara, S. (March 2012). “MDG drinking water target being met is cause for celebration.” The Guardian Newspaper (UK). Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/mar/06/mdg-drinking-water-target-met