A New Definition of Water Access: Quality Matters
Earlier today, I came across an excellent National Geographic infographic showing the proportion of people in various countries and regions of the world lacking access to clean drinking water over time. The graphic was well-designed, and I felt appropriately optimistic at the declining rates and frustrated by the continued failure to reach 100%. All of a sudden, a quote about halfway down the page caught my eye:
Eight out of ten people without access to clean water live in rural areas. In fact, 84 percent of people in rural areas have safe drinking water, compared with 96 percent in urban areas.
Wait, what? That can’t possibly be true. I’ve lived in Asunción, Paraguay and Fortaleza, Brazil — far from the poorest cities in the world — and even there, the [large] portion of the population that can’t afford bottled water or expensive filtration is drinking contaminated water. It’s worse in other cities I’ve visited like Phnom Penh, Addis Ababa, and Douala. While the message here may be true — urban access is probably better than rural access — the numbers are impossibly high. Of course, that’s IF you take “access to clean water” as meaning having a reliable connection to water that is safe to drink.
Unfortunately, that’s not the definition that anyone uses. The WHO, whose definition is adopted by the World Bank, governments, NGOs, and others, defines:
Access to an improved water source refers to the percentage of the population using an improved drinking water source. The improved drinking water source includes piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection).
Rather than bore you with lots of text about why that’s not an appropriate definition, I want to share some examples with you.
These are just a handful of examples, but they highlight that the WHO’s definition — which comes down to having access to physical infrastructure — glazes over the spectrum of services that people around the world whose wellbeing metrics like access to clean water are supposed to benefit.
It’s time for a new definition of access to clean water. In 2016, we’ve learned that having a pipe or well isn’t enough — people need RELIABLE (not intermittent) access to CLEAN water free of pathogens.
Of course, in the interest of being concise I’ve neglected a lot of the back story. I haven’t told you why access to clean water is so important. I’ll leave to many other articles to explain how clean water is the greatest public health investment of all time, and to tell you vivid stories of how having nearby water saves people (especially women and girls) hours every day. But I hope you buy my takeaway:
In a world of big data, access to clean water ought to be something we can measure better than having a piece of PVC within walking distance
Thanks for your comments.