Retrospective view is a series from the Headway team looking back at predictions and promises from the past.
For a long, long time, subsistence farmers in the northern highlands of Ethiopia risked getting sick and even dying from the crucial act of drinking water. By collecting water from the surface of contaminated bodies of water or springs, villagers coped with cholera outbreaks and the death of children from diarrhea before they even reached the age of five. Until recently, this was their only way out.
But in 2015, following a concerted effort by the government and humanitarian organizations to dig wells and install communal taps, the World Health Organization celebrated Ethiopia’s outstanding progress. In 1990, it was reported that only 14 percent of the country’s population had access to clean and safe water; by 2015, 57 percent had done so.
Ethiopia’s quest for access to clean water is partly a consequence of the goal set by the United Nations Member States in 2000. These countries have pledged to halve the proportion of the world without access to safe drinking water by 2015. compared to 1990 levels and on paper, the progress has been impressive. In 2012, Ban Ki-moon, then UN Secretary General, announced that the goal of ensuring safe water had been met ahead of schedule.
Yet villagers in Ethiopia and elsewhere continued to get sick.
Shibabau Tadesse, a researcher at the Ethiopian Water Institute at Addis Ababa University, set out to find out why. In 2019, he and a team of researchers identified 248 households that met two criteria: they received water from a so-called improved source, such as a pipe or indoor well, and a family member was treated for diarrhea. The researchers collected water samples and returned them to the laboratory.
Results, achievements? In two-thirds of households, water was contaminated with E. coli or other toxins that cause diarrhea, making it unsafe to drink. Despite all the progress Ethiopia has made, far fewer people actually drank clean water than the WHO reported.
Something went wrong?
The decades since the UN summit have coincided with a period of rapid growth in countries such as China, India and Brazil, which has helped accelerate infrastructure improvements. Most of the money for the effort came from the countries themselves, although humanitarian organizations also helped, according to Rick Johnston, a technical officer for the World Health Organization’s Joint Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Monitoring Program.
But when it came to checking the collateral, there was a problem. The only way to know if the water coming out of pipes or wells is safe to drink is to test it, and at the time, few countries had the means to do this on a large scale. Instead, the WHO researchers relied on one thing they could measure: the number of people getting water from improved sources.
However, dirty water can flow through the pipes. In Bangladesh, for example, tap water in urban areas is more likely to be contaminated than water from a primitive well or borehole in rural areas, according to a 2021 report from WHO / UNICEF researchers. “If you drill a hole in the ground in Bangladesh, sand and gravel will act as natural filters,” said Mr Johnston, one of the authors of the report. On the other hand, plumbing systems in urban areas supply water sporadically, creating low pressures that allow contaminated water to seep through cracks and uneven joints.
When a team of researchers led by the University of Bristol and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill measured water quality in five countries in 2008, they found that many supposedly safe springs were actually contaminated. The UN said that in 2010 about 800 million people still lacked access to clean drinking water, but researchers estimate that the figure was actually about two billion.
Unimproved water sources, such as open ponds, are more likely to be contaminated, Mr. Johnston said. “But even among the improved sources, we found examples of contamination — even heavy pollution.”
So has the world achieved the UN goal or not?
We don’t really know. The promise was based on higher levels than in 1990, and there is no reliable data on safe water during this time. But significant progress has been made. First, deaths from diarrheal diseases associated with contaminated water have dropped significantly – to about half a million a year – from more than two million in 2000, even as the world’s population is growing.
Researchers are also working with more accurate information. Technological advances since 2015 have made it easier to check water quality, so now the UN can not only track how water is delivered, but also know if it is safe to drink. Researchers also ask more questions: Is there water at home or do people, in particular women and girls, spend an hour a day collecting it? Is it available on an as-needed basis or only on an ad-hoc basis? Is it available? The result is a new metric called “safe drinking water sources,” which means clean water that is available when it is needed locally. The UN recently reported that about 74 percent of the world’s population meets this standard.
The most recent set of UN targets aims to achieve universal access to safe water by 2030. This is an ambitious target that is highly unlikely to be achieved. At least this time we’ll get a better idea of where the world is.
Promotion is an initiative of The New York Times that explores the problems of the world through the prism of progress.
The Headway Initiative is funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropists acting as financial sponsors. The Woodcock Foundation funds Headway Public Square.