This Sunday 22 March marks World Water Day. The importance of access to clean water is now accepted across the world. It provides a basis for a healthy life and a path out of poverty. Since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations fifteen years ago, global action has increased access to safe water and as a result millions of lives have been saved and improved.
The benefits of access to safe water are numerous. Women spend less time collecting water, opening up their lives to new opportunities. Children’s education is improved, as they no longer stay away from school to walk miles and bring back buckets. Communities become more economically active. Crucially, the pressure on fragile health systems lessens as the number of people seeking treatment for water borne diseases is significantly reduced.
However, clean water is not enough. Without cleaner sanitation the conditions people live in will still contribute to disease and ill-health. It is estimated that 748 million people, roughly one tenth of the world’s population, do not have access to safe water. Staggeringly, a further 2.5 billion people do not have safe sanitation. Some say that there are more mobile phones in the world than toilets! Open defecation spreads disease and poor school toilets stop girls attending classes. This is a real development issue.
Something must be done and 2015 is the definitive year of action and change. The post-2015 debate and the mounting anticipation around the Sustainable Development Goals has marked 2015 as a decisive year in global development. It is a chance to build upon the MDG success, with, for example, more action on clean water AND a step change in sanitation.
But there is a very real issue about accurate data collection. Crucial funding decisions, which affect the lives of millions, are taken on the basis of collected evidence. This evidence is fundamental to decision-making but a lack of accurate data damages policy progress and development. Current statistics show, for example, Malawi meeting its ‘access to water’ MDG. But this is misleading, as the stats don’t take into account whether water points actually work. In fact, DFID estimates that nearly 50% of existing water points are not ‘operational’.
The collection and reporting of accurate data must remain a key focus as the SDG’s are negotiated. And the UK government should aim to ensure this. SDG draft Goal 17 recognises this and states as an indicator the need ‘to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data…’. So the goal is in sight. The target can be enshrined in the SDG’s because the key themes of post-2015, sustainability and inequality, have created a focus on sustainable water development and funding based on accurate data.
I am an Ambassador for Pump Aid, a small charity that takes an approach that doesn’t just involve fitting a pump and walking away. It works with communities to ensure that they have the means to source spare parts and that members of the community are trained in maintenance and repair. Pump Aid works with these communities to promote improved hygiene practises to ensure that access to safe water isn’t undermined.
World Water Day reminds us that despite the tremendous progress we have made, hundreds of millions of men, women and children still lack the very basic foundations of life. It reminds us many were left behind in the Millennium Agreement and it reminds us we still have far to go. But it also shows the consensus of commitment to development across the globe – to help, to protect, to change and transform. And that it can be done. Let’s do it.