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The results of the water and sanitation SDG baseline report are as surprising as finding safely managed drinking water in rural Honduras. But we should be cautious in jumping to conclusions

It is surprising to meet people like Kristel Castellanos. She is the operator of the drinking water treatment plant of the rural municipality of San Matías in Honduras. She makes sure that the people of San Matías get water that is safely managed. Her work is not common, as rural water supply systems in Honduras rarely have a treatment plant. At most, operators may chlorinate the water, and even that is a big challenge. 

Photo: Kristel Castellanos, operator of the San Matías treatment plant, checking the water flow 

As surprising as finding such good water quality management in rural Honduras, were the data on safely managed water supply in the baseline report for the water and sanitation SDGs. According to that report 71% of the World's population has the same level of service as the people in San Matias, i.e. piped supplies with household connections that is available 24/7 and that has good quality water, or 'safely managed water', as the JMP calls it. More surprising is that 56% of the rural population has such water.

Ahead of the publication of the baseline report, there was lots of talk in the WASH sector that the baseline would come as a big shock. With the adoption of the SDGs, the bar for water supply has been raised. Under the MDGs, we measured whether people had an improved supply. The SDGs require people to have safely managed water. And by raising the bar, it would only be logical that a larger part of the population would not meet that bar. And indeed, the press release that accompanied the report was brought as a shock, using the headline figure that 2.1 billion people don't have safe water. I found that a way too alarmistic take on the findings of the report. With 71% of the World population having safely managed water the glass is not half full; it is three quarters full! 

The figure however is surprising, as the MDG end-line indicated that in 2015, some 58% of the world population had piped on premises (33% in rural areas). Piped on premises doesn't fully coincide with safely managed services. Safely managed services also require water to be of good quality and available. One would expect that the percentage of population with safely managed services would be lower than the population with piped on premises in 2015, as there are always piped supplies in which quality and/or availability are not adequate. But, instead we don't have a glass being half empty; we have one that is three quarters full.

However, we can only see a third of the glass, as Ben Harris mentioned. Sufficient data on safely managed services are only available for half of the countries. No data is available on the biggest countries in the World: China, India, Brazil and Indonesia. Most of the countries for which data are available are in the higher and middle income regions of Europe, Central Asia and Latin America. Only one region – Central and South Asia – has sufficient data on safely managed services in rural areas.

The report is very clear about these methodological limitations. And I think it is truly impressive that the JMP managed to make these estimates in such short time. But, it could have therefore also been more cautious in the message it sent out. It should have either said "more people than expected have safely managed services", or better "the first estimate shows 2.1 billion don't have safely managed services, but the data are too limited to jump to strong conclusions".

Nevertheless, I would say to all sector colleagues: read the report; it really is obligatory reading. And if anything, read the methodological sections. They are not always the most exciting sections to read in a report. But if we don't understand how the SDGs are monitored, the numbers will really take us by surprise. And by 2030, we should no longer be surprised to find as nicely safely managed water supplies in rural areas as the ones managed by Kristel Castellanos in San Matías.

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