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Closing the Equity Gap: Water and Sanitation Data Can Help Us to Ensure No One is Left Behind

New data revealing disparities in access to water and sanitation by ethnic group offer a powerful tool to help policymakers, program managers, and advocates take action to leave no one behind — the transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a central focus of USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s vision for inclusive development.

USAID is making water and sanitation equity data from the 2021 report on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) available on the Global Waters website to encourage their use. “We want to elevate this dataset so it can be used to address the gaps that marginalized people face,” says Brian Banks, WASH Analytics and Data Advisor with USAID’s Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene.

What is the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI)? The MPI uses globally comparable data from national surveys in more than 100 developing countries. The surveys assess each person’s experiences with poverty across 10 indicators including health (nutrition, child mortality), education (years of schooling, school attendance), and standard of living (drinking water, sanitation, cooking fuel, electricity, housing, assets).
Learn more and access the full database.

Multidimensional Poverty Index data now spotlight inequities

The MPI measures poverty using 10 indicators of deprivation, including lack of access to improved drinking water and sanitation (see Box 1). For the first time, this annual report from the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) disaggregates all of those indicators by ethnic group, race, or caste (available for 41 countries).

Figure 1. This map shows the 41 countries where MPI water and sanitation equity data are available. Explore the full map.

Drinking Water Equity Map

Most of the surveys included similar questions about ethnic group or tribe (e.g., Senegal), enhancing comparability, but a few focused instead on racial categories (Cuba), caste (India), or a combination of ethnic group and native language (Paraguay) (see Figure 2).

Examples of different categories of data available in various countries

The ethnicity of the head of household was assigned to all members of a household because every survey collected that information but very few surveys collected individual ethnicity data. UNDP Statistics Specialist Cecilia Calderón, who performed the disaggregation by ethnicity, notes that reliance on information about heads of households is a potential limitation of the data. However, the results of a sensitivity analysis conducted for four countries that did collect data for all household members found that both approaches yielded similar results.

Identifying equity gaps

Catarina de Albuquerque, the Chief Executive Officer of Sanitation and Water for All, says the water and sanitation equity data help fill a need for more accurate, reliable data on who is being left behind. “Many countries don’t know who is being excluded from accessing water and sanitation services or why they are being excluded,” she says. “It’s very easy to focus on averages, because they allow you to [ignore] entrenched discrimination against certain population groups.”

Banks notes that the sector has made progress in understanding how marginalization affects access to water and sanitation, looking at differences by gender and urban versus rural areas, for example. However, having data disaggregated by ethnicity makes it possible to understand who is marginalized with greater precision (see Box 2).

“It opens the door for more people to think about whether their programs are actually addressing marginalized communities, because they can examine more substantive dimensions of marginalization,” Banks explains. “And that creates opportunities to reduce some of the systemic factors that have led to lack of access.”

The disaggregated data reveal the degree of disparity in access to water and sanitation among ethnic groups in each country. Data visualizations created by USAID’s Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene show that the national “equity gap” between those who are most deprived of access to drinking water and those who are least deprived ranges from 84% to 1.7%; for sanitation, the range of national equity gaps is 78% to 1.4% (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Highest and lowest drinking water and sanitation equity gaps

A chart showing the highest and lowest drinking water and sanitation equity gaps

Explore more comparisons across countries and regions.

Using data to drive change

USAID is using visualizations like these to promote the use of the dataset in program design, implementation, and evaluation. Moving forward, the Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene will support USAID missions to use the data to design programs that help improve equitable access to services.

“We’re excited to collaborate with the broader sector to close equity gaps,” says Banks.

Banks emphasizes another way these data can help USAID realize the Administrator’s vision of inclusive development. “They can be used for policy making, but also to make sure marginalized people are represented and consulted about plans and decisions that affect their communities,” he says.

De Albuquerque says the dataset is an important advocacy tool that should be used by international and bilateral organizations, human rights advocates, and journalists to encourage policymakers to address inequalities through their policies, plans, and budgets.

Exploring these data allows WASH actors to understand new facets of equity in WASH services, and begin asking new questions, such as why some countries have such big differences in equity between water and sanitation (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Difference between access to water and access to sanitation in Latin America

A chart showing the difference between access to water and access to sanitation in Latin America

Explore more comparisons across countries and regions.

While USAID works on WASH programming in many of the countries covered in the report, USAID has designated 21 high priority countries for FY 2022 and more than one-third of them have data available in the report. Figure 5 shows the drinking water and sanitation equity gaps for the high priority countries where MPI equity data are available. As USAID continues to strengthen transformational programming in these countries, the new data can help ensure programs do not leave anyone behind.

Figure 5. Water and Sanitation Equity Gaps: FY 2022 USAID High Priority Countries

Water and Sanitation Equity Gaps: FY 2022 USAID High Priority Countries

The data are a stark reminder, de Albuquerque adds, that countries will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of safe water and sanitation for all by 2030 without bringing people who have been marginalized to the forefront. “The data reinforce the urgent need to accelerate progress, in particular, for the most marginalized and the most vulnerable,” she says.

By Kathleen Shears, Science Writer, FHI 360. FHI 360 is a partner on the Global Waters Communication and Knowledge Management Activity supported by USAID’s RFS Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene.



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