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Did the UN overestimate early success in achieving the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation?—An “Inside story” look

Published on: 09/03/2012

On 8 March 2012, Al Jazeera’s “Inside story” took a closer look at the results of the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report, produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. Patrick Moriarty, IRC's International programme director and Triple-S director participated in a panel discussion about whether the Joint Monitoring Programme overestimated the early success of reaching the Millinnium Development Goal for water and sanitation. 

On 8 March 2012, Al Jazeera’s “Inside story” was dedicated to the results of the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) report, produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. “Inside story” presenter, Adrian Finighan, was joined by Patrick Moriarty, IRC’s International programme director and Triple-S director; Joakim Harlin, UNDP senior water resources advisor; and Muhammad Jahangir, founder of Better Tomorrow, a water and sanitation NGO.

The panel discussion homed in on the message behind the JMP report—that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water has been met five years prior to the 2015 deadline. The JMP report stated that between 1990 and 2010, two billion people gained access to improved drinking water services. However, the report also mentioned that 11% of the world’s population is still without access to water.  Four out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa remain without access to safe drinking water. The huge disparity in water coverage between countries and regions begs two questions: how reliable is the JMP report on drinking water; and, do these figures really show an early success in meeting the MDG on water and sanitation?

Adrian Finighan kicked-off the discussion by asking ‘how does the JMP know whether the MDG for water and sanitation has been met?’ Joakim Harlin explained that the JMP is basing its findings on data from various sources including census data and household surveys. Patrick Moriarty added that we must be wary of the fact that quality of water being provided was not measured. The report does not look into whether water supplies work and whether they are reliable.  Moriarty said that while we have met the target according to the MDG definition, “we also have to be careful of what’s hidden behind that headline figure.” Muhammad Jahangir also said that understanding the meaning of decreasing the number of people who do not have access to water and sanitation services ‘by half’ is difficult and confusing. Jahangir rhetorically asked: “can you do it in one city, giving clean water to one [person] and not to the other?”

When questioned as to whether the remaining 11% without clean drinking water will obtain access by 2015, the three panelists shared a common, pessimistic view.  Joakim Harlin predicted that drinking water targets will be reduced to 7-8%, however sanitation targets will not be reached. Patrick Moriarty asserted that we will be very lucky to make significant progress by 2015. More money and more effort must be put into reaching people in rural areas and slums—communities which are most difficult and expensive to reach. He added that we must also keep a close eye on the need to maintain existing infrastructure. Muhammad Jahangir proposed a more radical way forward, stating the need for something completely different from MDGs—something with redefined specifications and approaches.

Clearly, further work needs to be done, with increased focus on monitoring and reporting methods in countries, as stated by Harlin; as well as increased efforts in targeting the poorest populations living in rural and slum communities, as noted by Moriarty. During the discussion, Moriarty also mentioned that it is essential to address water, sanitation, and hygiene together to improve health and reduce waterborne diseases, such as diarrhea.

Despite the prediction by all three panelists of the remaining 11% of the world’s population not being able to receive access to safe water and sanitation services by 2015, Joakim Harlin emphasised that the MDGs are a beacon for what we can all work towards. Already, the MDGs “have had a huge role in galvanising political will and commitment… we should claim victory for that”, said Harlin. MDGs are achievable.  

Watch the Al Jazeera “Inside story” on water and sanitation: