NEW YORK/GENEVA -- Every day, over 2.5 billion people suffer from a lack of access to improved sanitation and nearly 1.2 billion practice open defecation, the riskiest sanitary practice of all, according to a report issued last week by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. The program is the official UN mechanism tasked with monitoring progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Target 7c on drinking water supply and sanitation.
The report, "Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation - Special Focus on Sanitation," comes halfway through the International Year of Sanitation. The report assesses -- for the first time -- global, regional and country progress using an innovative "ladder" concept. This shows sanitation practices in greater detail, enabling experts to highlight trends in using improved, shared and unimproved sanitation facilities and the trend in open defecation. "Improved sanitation” refers to any facility that hygienically separates human waste from the environment.
Similarly, the 'drinking water ladder' shows the percentage of the world population that uses water piped into a dwelling, plot or yard, and other improved water sources such as hand pumps, and unimproved sources.
Worldwide, the number of people who lack access to an improved drinking water source (protected from fecal and chemical contamination) has fallen below one billion for the first time since data were first compiled in 1990. At present 87 percent of the world population has access to improved drinking water sources, with current trends suggesting that more than 90 percent will do so by 2015.
The number of people practicing open defecation dropped from 24 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2006. The report also highlights disparities within national borders, particularly between rural and urban dwellers. Worldwide, there are four times as many people in rural areas – approximately 746 million – without improved water sources, compared to some 137 million urban dwellers.
Poor sanitation threatens children's survival as a fecally-contaminated environment is directly linked to diarrheal disease, one of the biggest killers of infants under the age of five. A clean environment is very difficult to ensure if open defecation is practiced even by a minority of the population.
"At current trends, the world will fall short of the Millennium sanitation target by more than 700 million people," said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF executive director. "Without dramatic improvements, much will be lost."
However, more and more people are now using improved sanitation facilities, which ensure human excreta are disposed of in a way that prevents them from causing disease by contaminating food and water sources.
Though the practice of open defecation is on the decline worldwide, 18% of the world's population, totaling 1.2 billion people, still practice it. In southern Asia, some 778 million people still rely on this risky sanitation practice.
"We have today a full menu of low-cost technical options for the provision of sanitation in most settings," said WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan. "More and more governments are determined to improve health by bringing water and sanitation to their poorest populations. If we want to break the stranglehold of poverty, and reap the multiple benefits for health, we must address water and sanitation."
Real improvements in access to safe drinking water have occurred in many of the countries of southern Africa. According to the report, seven of the 10 countries that have made the most rapid progress and are on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal targets related to drinking water, are in sub-Saharan Africa: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Namibia and Uganda. Of the countries not yet on track to meet the sanitation target, but making rapid progress, five are in sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Cameroon, Comoros, Mali and Zambia.
Source: World Health Organization