Water and sanitation – act now, use data, celebrate later

In 2012, the UN made the announcement that the Millennium Development Goal target on water had been met and over two billion more people now had access to water from ‘improved’ sources. Many people thought: “Wonderful! The images of children and women carrying heavy water buckets on their heads for miles are now going to be a thing of the past! It’s time to celebrate!”

Not so fast…

The success story of the water MDG target hides a much more nuanced reality. The target was to cut by half the proportion of people who did not have access in 1990, not to get water to every single person. This means that improvements in access to water did not benefit all countries or all people equally. In addition, some of those improvements might be short-lived.

So, unfortunately, women and children still must walk great distances to fetch water.

Gains in access must be sustained. The data tell us that at any given point around 30% of water points are not working after five years, because of poor operation and maintenance.

For sanitation – access to toilets – the picture is even less rosy. The final report on the progress on the MDGs said that the sanitation goal has not been met. Roughly 1 in 3 people globally (2.4 billion people, or 8 times the population of the USA) still lack access to adequate toilets and 946 million people (3 times the population of the USA) defecate in the open.

Hygiene (including handwashing) was not even part of the MDGs, despite its proven potential to prevent an enormous number of deaths.

In June 2015, Congolese girls and young women fill their water containers in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1729/BeecheyIn June 2015, Congolese girls and young women fill their water containers in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania.

But now the world has another chance to get it right. The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its very ambitious goal on water and sanitation presents an exciting opportunity to give universal access to safe and sustainable water services. It is ambitious and it is everybody’s business.

But, this time around, we will have to think of new ways of doing things to ensure no-one is left behind and that what we do lasts.

UNICEF has helped bring to scale innovations that use mobile phone technology to allow government and citizens to monitor levels of access and service in real time, including in the remotest communities.

In Bakori, Katsina State in Nigeria, representatives of rural communities have been trained to report hand-pump malfunctions using mobile SMS technology. The local government sends SMS queries to local water committees on whether their water points are working, and these committees respond immediately. The data are published on a web-based platform.

Communities are enthusiastic about this approach as they see it as an opportunity to take charge of and participate in solving a problem which affects them. Government and local service providers have in turn become more responsive. Since the introduction in October 2013, the water point functionality rates in those communities have risen from 73% to 98%.

In Zambia, UNICEF helped the Government to develop a real-time surveillance system using mobile-to-web technologies to monitor rural sanitation and hygiene. At the village level, Community Champions collect data using low-cost, simple mobile phones. Data is shared real-time with government staff who can analyse it and plan and make informed decisions in response.

The technology is currently being used in 7 out of the 10 provinces of the country and has helped the government to add 1.63 million new users of sanitation in just two years. The system allows greater accountability, better data quality, and higher cost efficiency per village targeted. With some support, the Government has the potential to expand the system to cover the nation’s entire rural population for both sanitation and water supply.

These examples work because they allow ordinary citizens, even in the remotest and most disadvantaged areas, to monitor services and hold providers and government partners to account. Thus, they themselves are helping to improve the overall governance and sustainability of the water and sanitation sector.

It points to the way forward. Generate real-time data usable by ordinary citizens; share information; increase transparency and participation to trigger government responsiveness and accountability, and thereby end up with more reliable services. This will ultimately help to keep water flowing – something which is key to achieving and sustaining universal access and making the ambitious SDG agenda a reality for even the poorest children.

Dr. Cecilia Scharp is UNICEF’s Senior Advisor on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

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  1. The quality of water that we give to our children , guarantee the quality of life that we can ​​offer them so they fully live their dreams.