In early March, a report from Unicef and the World Health Organization proclaimed proudly that the world had not only met but also surpassed the Millennium Development Goals target of reducing by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water. The agencies said that 89 percent of the global population — that’s 6.1 billion of 7 billion people — enjoyed improved drinking water by the end of 2010.
It doesn’t take much traveling around country villages or urban shantytowns in large parts of Asia and Africa to be a little skeptical of the upbeat conclusion in the new report, “Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012,” about accomplishments in meeting a target under Goal 7, which deals with environmental sustainability.
Even the report itself said, “In rural areas of Least Developed Countries, 97 out of every 100 people do not have piped water and 14 percent of the population drinks surface water – for example, from rivers, ponds or lakes.” It adds, moreover, that huge disparities exist within regions, between countries and inside countries. Ninety percent of Latin Americans have improved water supplies – “improved” is not always the same as “safe” – while the corresponding figure for sub-Saharan Africa is only 61 percent.
The report also said that some of its findings are essentially guesstimates because comprehensive information about drinking water safety is not available for global monitoring.
“Systematically testing the microbial and chemical quality of water at the national level in all countries is prohibitively expensive and logistically complicated; therefore, a proxy indicator for water quality was agreed upon for MDG monitoring,” the report said. “This proxy measures the proportion of the population using ‘improved’ drinking water sources, defined as those that, by the nature of their construction, are protected from outside contamination, particularly fecal matter. However, some of these sources may not be adequately maintained and therefore may not actually provide ‘safe’ drinking water.”
In the improved sanitation category, another target under Goal 7, the report admits candidly that the world will not reach the mark, probably by a wide margin. About 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation, including reasonably clean latrines. Fifteen percent of the world’s people defecate in the open, “defined as defecation in fields, forests, bushes, bodies of water or other open spaces,” the report said. “This represents 1.1 billion people. Though the proportion of people practicing open defecation is decreasing, the absolute number has remained at over one billion for several years, due to population growth.”
South Asia, led by India, has the largest percentage of people without flush toilets or latrines.
Better in the city?
Some development experts say that one positive result of increasing urbanization in poor countries may be that access to improved water and sanitation facilities will be more assured. Others disagree. Joseph Chamie, the former director of the United Nations Population Division, which tracks global statistics, says that the quality of services offered must be factored into these claims.
Simply moving to a city, where there may be water and some sewage service, does not mean migrants are getting safer water. “Often they’re not,” Chamie said in an interview. “Safe water implies that you have public health and water services, and plumbing that will get clean water into your house. And you also need electricity to pump the water through the pipes.” Energy shortages are increasingly common in cities growing faster than their public services can cope.
Lester Brown, in his book “Plan B 4.0,” describes how a country like India is facing not only contaminated water sources but also water shortages. He draws on the work of Indian experts who are connecting the availability and uses of water with sanitation failures and contamination of water supplies. Brown questions what he describes as the tendency of governments in developing countries to chase the goal of water-based sewage systems and treatment plants.
He refers to the work of Sunita Narain of the Center for Science and Environment in India, who “argues convincingly that a water-based disposal system with sewage treatment facilities is neither environmentally nor economically viable for India,” Brown said. Narain calls Indian sewage disposal methods “a pathogen-dispersal system” that makes “vast quantities of water unfit for human use.”
As the 2015 deadline for meeting the eight Millennium Development Goals nears, many attempts will be made to document progress or to make promises of improvements. These bear close scrutiny. Even the measure of poverty may be debatable in any given country. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is Goal 1, and experts believe the poverty target can be met. But how?
In a statistics-packed article on March 21, Soutik Biswas, a columnist and trenchant commentator for the BBC in Delhi, asked a simple question: Who are the poor in India? His answer was: “The fact is, nobody knows. There are various estimates on the exact number of poor in India, and the counts have been mired in controversy.” The UN estimates that India, with the world’s largest number of poor people, will be the world’s most populous country before 2025, overtaking China.
Biswas was reacting to a government report that 29.8 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live below the national poverty line, a big drop from an earlier figure of more than 37 percent. But the new figure was arrived at by lowering the poverty line to the equivalent of an individual income of 56 cents a day in cities and 44 cents in rural areas, less than half of an internationally accepted figure.
Biswas noted that antipoverty activists in India, some of whom calculate the incidence of poverty as high as 77 percent of the national population, challenged the head of the country’s planning commission to try living on half a dollar a day “in a country with high inflation and leaky and shambolic social benefits.”
In Mexico, Chamie said, he has been asked for advice by a nongovernmental group that doubts the low fertility levels reported by the government because unofficial evidence from rural areas would appear to show that many births are not being recorded. Unregistered births are common in poor countries without good statistical services.
Worldwide, there is better registration for cars than for people, Chamie said. “We know every car, we know where it is. It has an identification number. Every developing country, when a car comes in, taxes it or gives it a license plate. So we have a better understanding of the registration of cars than we do of children.”
As director of the UN population division, Chamie and his team of demographers often had to “correct” statistics supplied by governments, using other sources of information. “We made that very clear to governments,” he said. “When you send information to the UN, it goes to the statistical office. They compile those statistics and report them in the demographic yearbook. Information comes to the population division through that office, but we were not obliged to use their numbers at face value.”
Some of the toughest numbers to read for accuracy involve human development because politics and social policies get involved, Chamie said. “I’ve always joked that in the social sciences demography is a science and everything else is social. It’s very easy to measure a death or a birth or come up with life expectancies and population size. But when you start trying to measure poverty and other areas – especially social behavior — it becomes much more dicey.”
This article is the first in a series assessing the status of the Millennium Development Goals.
[This article was updated on April 17.]
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.