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Is the glass half full or half empty?

Published on: 09/03/2012

This week the Joint Monitoring Program of the United Nations announced that the MDG for water supply has been reached, most likely already somewhere in 2010. 5 years ahead of the deadline the percentage of the World’s population without access to safe water supplies has been halved. This is no mean feat and would be a cause for celebration. Yet, the report in which this was announced as well as the various comments on it, have been fairly cautious in tone and celebrations of this achievement have been mooted. Does this mean that the predominant view is that the glass is half empty, and not half full? Or, are there big reasons of concern around the filling of the other half of the glass?

Let’s have a look at some of the figures. Between 1990 and 2010 over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources, equivalent to some 275.000 persons per day! In this way, the percentage of the World population without access has been reduced from 24% to 11%. In absolute numbers, this increase is largely due to the great progress made in China and India, both countries with large populations. But also in relative terms, most progress was made in the various Asian sub-regions. Although Sub-Saharan Africa increased its access with a very reasonable 12 percentage-point, its low starting point made that this region is largely off-track to meet the MDGs and it is the region where access to water remains lowest at around 61%. Of the two billion people gaining access, 1.2 billion did so in urban areas, and the remaining 800 million in rural areas. For the urban areas, this meant basically that efforts to increase access managed to keep pace with population growth, as the relative level of access remained stable around 95%. But for rural areas it meant an increase in access from 62 to 81%. All this points to the glass being half full. In urban areas, the provision of access has managed for 20 years to keep pace with population growth and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case in the future. And in rural areas, there is steady progress to reaching good levels of coverage.

So what are the cautionary remarks why some consider the glass to be half empty? First and foremost, actual services that people receive are often sub-standard. Though the JMP increasingly relies on user surveys to find out the service that people actually receive, this doesn’t capture all the details. In many cases, the actually received service is below the standard of the JMP or of national norms and standards. Recent work in Colombia showed that half of the systems had service levels below the benchmark standard for example because of water quality problems. Similar research in Ghana showed that a majority of people received sub-standard services. If this factor is taken into account, the coverage figures are much lower than portrayed in the JMP report.

Moreover, the cautionary remarks refer to the possibility of achieving universal coverage, as also UN Permanent Secretary states in his preface. Filling the other half of the glass will be more difficult because of the following reasons:

  • Reaching the last percentages of the population currently not covered will be increasingly difficult and expensive. As seen, no dents have been made in the last 5% not covered in urban areas. Probably, these are floating populations on the outskirts of cities, often in informal settlements, which are very difficult to reach with formal models of service delivery. It is also to be expected that most progress in rural areas has been made in more nucleated settlements, closer to main roads and other towns. Countries and regions, such as Latin America and North Africa, that had reached coverage rates of some 80% already in the 1990s have made less steep progress in increasing access, probably for the reason that the last percentages are most difficult. We need to remind ourselves that in many European countries and the USA, the last rural households got improved water sources well until the 1970s and often at great (public) cost.
  • Two steps forward; one step back. As the total water infrastructure increases, more and more resources will be needed to maintain and eventually replace that infrastructure. If not part of the progress will be undone. Some of the figures on that are alarmingly often rehearsed: that 1 in three handpumps in Africa is broken down or that, if aspects like water quality are taken into account, only a minor percentage of water systems in Latin America are considered to provide an adequate level of access. So for every two steps forward that are made, we may make one step back. So far, the net effect has been the progress seen above. But this is of course not an efficient way of working that is sustainable in the long term. And if indeed more resources are invested in adequate maintenance and replacement, which we would of course advocate for, these obviously are not available for providing access to those who don’t now.
  • Getting better services. The measure employed in the JMP refers to a basic level of service, a lifeline of water. Many users aspire to having much higher levels of service: having it closer by than the JMP norm, or having a higher quantity, or better quality water. The JMP reports illustrates this aspiration by the fact that the growth in the percentage of population with piped water on premises (as proxy for a higher level of service than the basic service level) has been much higher than the general growth in access to water. Particularly in middle income regions, such as Eastern and Southeast Asia and Northern Africa, a big part of the growth in access to water is through piped supplies. Only in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia this trend isn’t clear yet. But as countries or segments of the population reach middle income status it is to be expected that they also will seek piped supplies on the premise. These higher levels of service do come at higher unit costs than the basic supplies or will require incremental investments. Some would argue that there shouldn’t be investments in higher levels of service until everyone is covered. That is not likely to be a realistic position. Political pressure of (lower) middle classes will be there to demand such services. And in fact, such services may contribute a lot to poverty alleviation as well, for example through multiple use of water. This is not to say that all investments in higher levels of service need to come from public funds. Users can contribute. But the drive towards higher levels of service will partially divert public funds from investments for those not covered yet.
  • Regional and country differences. It is important to know where the majority of currently unserved live. Most of the unserved are in the poorest quintile of the population. But if they are in that quintile in better off countries, there are chances that the country can afford to subsidize services from general taxes. The unserved in very poor countries are not likely to enjoy such subsidies and will need to rely on systems to be developed through aid-funded projects. Looking at the list of where most of the currently unserved live, there are big countries like Indonesia, India and China where public service delivery may be the way to reach to the last quintile of the population. But some of the other countries in the list are DR Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, all countries home to large numbers of people unserved, but which are also among the poorest countries in the World. Aid will play an important role to raise the funds needed to extend services to these populations.

Though the glass may be considered half full, filling it to the top will become more and more difficult. This does require us to issue words of caution of the trends in access to water supply. However, let’s also take the opportunity to celebrate the achievement of reaching the second of the MDGs. Please raise your glasses (of water) for a toast: cheers! And for more discussion on the report, see this video where Patrick Moriarty and others are interviewed on Al Jazeera to comment on the report:

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