Insufficient financing overall, funding gaps in rural areas, weak national capacity, gaps in monitoring, and neglect for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in schools and health facilities are among the biggest factors limiting progress toward universal access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation services worldwide, according to a new UN-Water-World Health Organization (WHO) report, released to mark World Toilet Day on November 19th.
The report, “Investing in Water and Sanitation: Increasing Access, Reducing Inequalities,” a UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS 2014) update, found that although 2.3 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were first implemented, there are still 2.5 billion people around the world without access to improved sanitation, 1 billion still practicing open defecation and nearly 750 million people without access to improved drinking water. Some 1.8 billion people are using a drinking water source contaminated with feces, the report said.
It found that funding gaps play a significant role in inhibiting progress toward reaching the MDG targets on water and sanitation.
“Water and sanitation are essential to human health. Political commitment to ensure universal access to these vital services is at an all-time high,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the WHO Department of Public Health and the Environment. “International aid for the sector is on the rise. But we continue to see major financial gaps at the country level, particularly in rural areas.”
Political commitment has been strengthened through increased recognition of drinking water and sanitation access as a universal human right, with two-thirds of the 94 countries surveyed in the report establishing this with national legislation. Also, more than 80 percent of the countries now have policies on drinking water and sanitation, and 75 percent have policies for hygiene.
But political aspirations have often been impeded by weak capacity at country level to set targets, formulate plans, undertake implementation and conduct meaningful reviews -- what the report called “a large gap between aspirations and reality.”
There have also been improvements in international aid efforts, with financial commitments for WASH increasing by 30 percent from $8.3 billion USD to $10.9 billion between 2010 and 2012, the report found. Aid is also being better targeted toward sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
One of the key challenges remaining is financing at national level, which currently is insufficient to meet targets. In addition, rural areas are still receiving less than 10 percent of total WASH financing, and fewer than one-third of countries evaluated in the report have fully funded and implemented WASH plans or have inconsistent or fragmented monitoring and data collection on WASH projects. Less than 30 percent of countries have national WASH plans for schools and health facilities that are fully funded and implemented.
“Addressing these issues, in line with achieving the goal of universal coverage in water, sanitation and hygiene, will require the collective efforts of national governments, local communities and international agencies alike,” the report said.
“As we identify the financial and human resource gaps, governments and donors can be more strategic in supporting policies and in implementing sustainable programs to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation for all people,” added Chris Williams, executive director of the UN-hosted Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC).
Efforts are being made to reach the poor, such as increasing block tariffs and reduced connection fees, as well as microfinance loans and free water allocations, but only 17 percent of countries were found to consistently apply financial measures to reduce disparities in access to sanitation for the poor, and only 23 percent did so for drinking water.
Investing in WASH is still financially smart, the report observed. According to WHO estimates, for every dollar invested in water and sanitation, there is a more than $4 USD return in reduced healthcare costs.
“Now is the time to act,” says Michel Jarraud, chair of UN-Water and secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization. “We may not know yet what the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will look like. But we do know that water and sanitation must be clear priorities if we are to create a future that allows everyone to live healthy, prosperous and dignified lives.”
Sanjay Wijesekera, head of global WASH programs at the United Nations Children’s Fund, said: “Lack of sanitation is a reliable marker of how the poorest in a country are faring. But although it is the poor who overwhelmingly do not have toilets, everyone suffers from the contaminating effects of open defecation, so everyone should have a sense of urgency about addressing this problem.”