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Access to drinking water and sanitation is a fundamental, but not yet universal human right

Article published on 15.03.13

SEAAL - Treatment Plant drinking water Boudouaou (Algiers): manipulation of valves / Photo Credit: © SUEZ ENVIRONMENT / Krista Boggs

The Right to Water and Sanitation has been recognised as a fundamental human right by the United Nations since 2010. However, is this right universal? We have to observe that there are still wide disparities between the Earth’s regions. Review.


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, access to water (water used for domestic purposes, drinking, cooking and personal hygiene) means having a water source that is less than one kilometre away from the place where it is used, and having the option of obtaining at least 20 litres of water per inhabitant per day on a regular basis. This water is not always drinkable. Drinking water is water that has microbial, chemical and physical features that meet the WHO directives or international standards regarding domestic water quality. Access to water in connection with millennium goals is indicated by the proportion of people who use improved water sources (in-home connection, drinking-fountains, protected wells, protected sources, and rain water).

Basic sanitation, meanwhile, corresponds to the technology that enables the hygienic evacuation of excrement and domestic waste water, and ensures a clean and healthy living environment both in users’ homes and in their neighbouring area. Access to basic sanitation is measured by calculating the proportion of people that use improved sanitation services (connection to a public drain, connection to a septic tank, flush latrine, simple pit latrine, or an upgraded latrine with a self-ventilating pit).


Disparities between continents, cities, and the countryside


780 million people still have no access to improved water points

2.5 billion people still do not have an improved sanitation system

In 2000, the United Nations Member Countries had set one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as reducing the percentage of the population with no reliable access to an improved water point and basic sanitation services by 50% by 2015. Where are we today?

Unequal access to quality water

According to the WHO and UNICEF, over 2 billion people have gained access to improved water points since 1990. In 2010, over 780 million people still had no access to improved water points. However, the water access MDG has been achieved since 2010, as 89% of the world’s population now has access to improved water points.

This is an encouraging outcome, although the data relies solely on the existence of infrastructure (the improved water points). Therefore, it does not take the actual water quality, or quality of service (a water point that actually functions) into account. When used as an indicator, improved water points overestimate the number of people that have access to water quality one can safely rely on. Citing research conducted by Bartram et al. (2012) and Payen (2011), we can estimate that only around 50% of the world’s population actually has access to safe water, while 25% is believed to have access to water of a doubtful quality and 25% is still using dangerous water, which corresponds to an additional billion people compared with the WHO and UNICEF estimates.

Geographic inequality of access to services

In addition, these estimates hide major disparities between the world’s regions. In fact, Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa are not on track to reach the drinking water goal set by the MDGs which binds to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. Enhanced water point coverage is only 61% in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the lowest level among all the world’s regions. Almost 50% of the two billion people who have gained access to improved water points since 1990 live in China or India. There are also disparities between urban and rural areas. 96% of the urban population was using improved water points in 2010, compared with 81% of the rural population. Most people with no access to improved water points live in rural areas.

Nonetheless, where access to water and sanitation are concerned, we have been seeing positive progress towards access in rural areas over the past 20 years. We are seeing the opposite in urban areas. The improvement in access to water and sanitation cannot keep up with the rapid increase in the population. In fact, although this access is increasing in percentage terms, the number of people who do not have access to the service is also increasing.

Access to sanitation

Water pump in Africa

In 2010, 63% of the world’s population used improved sanitation facilities. We estimate that this percentage will reach 67% in 2015, which is still a long way from the 75% required to reach the sanitation target set by the MDGs. In 2010, 2.5 billion people still did not have access to improved sanitation.

Here again, the world’s regions are not all equal in terms of access to sanitation. Four people in every 10 who have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990 live in China or India. Although sanitation coverage is improving in almost all developing regions, sanitation coverage is below 50% in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The disparities between rural and urban areas are even starker for sanitation than for water supply. On a global scale, 79% of city-dwellers use an improved sanitation facility, compared with 47% of the rural population.


Solutions that are appropriate for the world’s different regions

What can we do to improve access to drinking water and basic sanitation? There are many solutions, and they have the same goal: improving populations’ living conditions. In fact, the lack of access to drinking water and sanitation poses serious risks. Untreated water carries viruses, bacteria, parasites, and even plant or animal micro-organisms. It can therefore be the cause of disease. These water-borne diseases kill around 5 million people every year, and 2.3 billion people suffer from them. The micro-organisms found in water may carry malaria, schistostomiasis, typhoid fever, cholera, and amoebic dysentery. These illnesses cause severe diarrhoea and are responsible for the death of around 1.8 million people every year, 90% of whom are children under five, who mostly live in developing countries. Diarrhoea is the most serious public health problem that is directly linked to water and sanitation.

Bathing and washing in the pond (India)

These solutions can be adapted to the world’s different regions. In emerging countries (including India and China) the authorities sometimes involve companies in the water and sanitation sector through public-private partnerships, which enable the population’s water and sanitation services to be improved and tend towards standards in developed countries. In countries that lack financial resources, countries can call oninternational donors to finance projects to improve access to services. This is specifically the case in Haiti. In countries where rural areas suffer from high levels of poverty, it is ONGs and foundations that are working on improving access to water and sanitation. Lastly, in developed countries, we are seeing the expansion of a social water policy that aims to guarantee universal access to water.


The Water for All Programme

City Palace, Jodhpur, Rajasthan (Inde)

In order to implement the right to water and sanitation from an operational standpoint as part of its contracts with local authorities, SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT is developing the Water for All Programme. “We cover many countries where the company operates with a view to helping local authorities implement the right to water or sanitation, regardless of whether this involves including informal settlements in the area served, or finding acceptable financial conditions for households who are experiencing difficulties” Sidoine Ravet, the Programme Head, explains. In this context, technical assistance assignments are taking place in emerging countries, including India.


Water pump in Africa photo credit: Julien Harneis/Flickr
Bathing and washing in the pond (India): Sustainable sanitation/Flickr
City Palace, Jodhpur, Rajasthan (India) photo credit: Lumière/Flickr

find out more

Access to water and sanitation via SUEZ ENVIRONNEMENT

The 2012 report on Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation (WHO)

The Millennium Development Goals

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Updated on 15.03.13