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Drinking water and sanitation for all by 2030: A dream or a reality?

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DEBATE - In honour of the publication of this first Water Barometer, Alain Boinet, founder of SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, met with Gérard Payen, a member of the United Nations Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB). The result was a lively debate between a humanitarian actor and an international expert for both of whom access to water and sanitation is a top priority.

ALAIN BOINET : For this coming September, UN Member States are preparing to define new development goals for the period 2015-2030. But have we really achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) set for 2000-2015? At SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL we have our doubts.

GÉRARD PAYEN : Since 2000, close to one and a half billion more people have gained access to improved water sources. As far as sanitation is concerned, it is estimated that close to 1.3 billion people gained access to decent toilets between 2000 and 2014. These figures may seem impressive, but we have to bear in mind that the world’s population is growing rapidly. It’s therefore important that we look at the number of people who still don’t have access to drinking water and decent toilets. They remain in the billions.

AB : Exactly. And I recall that together we challenged the United Nations on the accuracy of the figures published and the progress that is said to have been made over a number of years. And yet in July 2010 the UN voted a resolution stipulating that access to drinking water is a human right. We are a long way away!

GP : As far as drinking water goes, the situation clearly improved while the MDG were in place. The number of people who share their sources of water with animals (known as "unimproved" sources) has decreased since 1990, from 1.2 billion to fewer than 800 million. This is significant progress. With regard to sanitation, the progress made has been equally substantial. Nevertheless, 2.5 billion people still lack decent toilet facilities and, thanks to a methodology developed by UNICEF and the WHO, we are now aware that at least 2 billion people are using water contaminated by faeces, which is dangerous to their health. Finally - even though it’s a rough estimate - there are between 3 and 4 billion people whose human rights related to access to drinking water are not being respected.

AB : For us, access to drinking water and sanitation represents a humanitarian emergency, chiefly because water-related diseases caused by unsafe water kill millions of human beings each year, most of them children. I am surprised that we’ve stopped talking about it. Are there figures out there indicating a decline in this silent slaughter?

GP : Progress made with regard to drinking water and sanitation has a major impact on mortality rates, particularly on infant mortality. It is estimated that, despite a 15% in the world’s population, the annual number of deaths due to diarrhoea and related diseases such as cholera fell by a third between 2000 and 2012. The result is a significant reduction in the annual number of deaths related to water, hygiene and sanitation, which today is down to 2.6 million.

AB : The progress you highlight is not equally distributed throughout the world, nor between rural and urban areas. We see these imbalances for ourselves when we’re in the field.

GP : You’re right, needs are greater in rural areas. However, significant progress has been made there too. The difficult part is the race to improve water and sanitation services in cities, to keep up with the pace of urban growth. For the moment, public authorities are losing this race: the number of urban dwellers without access to a drinking water tap or decent toilets is higher today than it was 10 years ago.

AB : In September 2015, the UN will vote on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So far, seventeen objectives have been selected, one of which relates to water: it specifically targets universal access to drinking water and sanitation, a goal which we have fought hard to obtain, with the French Water Partnership (FWP). Is there not a risk that it may be forgotten in the final version?

GP : I am fairly confident. The target proposed by the majority of governments today is to achieve universal access to absolutely safe drinking water under satisfactory conditions by 2030. Another target that’s envisaged is universal access to decent toilets. These are two very ambitious targets. However, I hope that they will make the cut, as billions of people depend on them.

AB : Isn’t there a risk that this goal will go unheeded, as happened with the UN resolution of July 2010, which stipulated that access to drinking water is a human right? We have to move beyond the declaration of intention to implementation.

GP : The progress made towards achieving the Water SDG will be measured. This SDG will thus become an operational tool which will help us move towards greater fulfilment of this human right. To achieve the goals that will be adopted in September 2015, we will have to speed up the development of national policies. We can’t afford to continue at the current pace. Ensuring universal access to drinking water means changing the fate of 2 billion people in the space of 15 years. As regards access to toilets, we have until 2030 to achieve that which until now was deemed impossible before the second half of the century.

AB : But the devil is often in the detail... Objections will no doubt be raised on the grounds of conditions and constraints, such as benchmark indicators and the financial resources required. How can we make sure we have the resources to reach these goals?

GP : As far as drinking water and sanitation go, they clearly need to be made a priority in national budgets. Governments that prioritise access to drinking water and sanitation achieve their objectives. For most countries, the cost of providing access to water is not prohibitive. As for the poorest countries, they receive significant international assistance. It’s therefore not an unrealistic goal. However, it’s essential that genuine political will is demonstrated at all levels.

AB : I have noticed that humanitarian crises related to war and disaster are generally not included in development policies, even though they directly affect dozens of countries and hundreds of millions of human beings who find themselves in unimaginable situations. This must change. What are your thoughts on this subject?

GP : Concerning disasters, it is likely that there will be a SDG target aiming to decrease the human and economic loss that they cause. We estimate that more than 80% of catastrophes taking place today are related to water. The SDGs should thus enable us to provide a more effective response to water-related catastrophes. However, conflict zones are a different issue. They should be considered within the SDG referring to peace.

Biography : GÉRARD PAYEN, member of the United Nations Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), has been working for more than 30 years on finding solutions to water problems. President of AquaFed, The International Federation of Private Water Operators, he is also a member of (RE)SOURCES, a think tank dedicated to water and energy that brings together water and energy professionals, academics, politicians and officials from NGOs and international organisations.