Woman collecting water during a drought in Africa.

MDG 2012 – World Meets Clean Water Goal Ahead of Time

One of several, ambitious, Millennium Development Goals adopted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in 1990 was to reduce, by half, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. This specific target was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule as recently reported in “Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012”. Specifically, since 1990 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water resources.

Much of the gain has been achieved in China, where the economy has been thriving, providing the resources to develop basic infrastructure in rural areas. Some of the result may be explainable by a change in data collection methodology, from a provider-based to a user-based census method. The results don’t infer that the improvements in water access are necessarily safer. There is no feasible method to sample end-of-pipe water quality on a global scale. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of any comparable example for such a wide-spread improvement of the quality of life for so many people over such a short period of time.

One adjective in the original goal that I would like to focus on is ‘sustainable’. I could not find any reference in the 2012 progress report on how they were measuring and monitoring the sustainability of these improvements.

There is a truism that ‘you manage what you measure’ and if sustainability is not being measured there is almost no chance it is being managed.

If water is being made available in one place it is invariably at the expense of its availability in another place. What is the long term reliability of the source from which the water is being extracted? What are the ecosystem services that are impacted by diversion of water for human consumption? Laying pipe or drilling holes is a relatively easy method to provide immediate gratification – tangible results as a result of a short duration project of limited cost. This is almost a perfect recipe for attracting funding from donors who want the satisfaction that their investment is making a real difference. Answering difficult questions about the source of the water is a proposition that doesn’t fit the low cost, short time-frame, immediate result, parameters needed to gain sponsors.

In a country with little or no infrastructure for water resources management what is the hope that the cumulative impact of hundreds or thousands of micro-projects will be manageable in the future? If we set the example that water resources can be exploited without consideration of the long term management of the resource then are we doing the recipients of the developments a favor or a disservice?

The Matador Project provides several illustrative examples of mis-guided, if well-intentioned, development projects. It is difficult to merely waste money on international development. If money is being wasted then there is a very good chance that some harm will come where good is intended.

Water projects, big or small, must be managed in the context of an understanding of the source of the water. Such an understanding is dependent on data.

Developing water resource exploitation projects in countries that lack any water resource management capacity is, in my opinion, mis-guided. History has shown that the “develop first, collect data later – or not at all” approach has never worked out very well for any water resource. I don’t understand how it is OK to suppose that evidence-deficient decision making is somehow OK in the 3rd world when we have determined – by trial and error – that evidence-based decision making is a far better method to use for management of our own water resources. I think the Millennium Development Goals could have been much better served if the development of water supply projects were substantively linked to co-development of water resource monitoring and water resource management capacity. In this way, we would not persist in sinking ever more bore holes deeper and deeper into aquifers that are already over-stressed by changing land-use and trends in climate.

There is a cost difference between the quick fix of laying pipe versus developing the infrastructure to manage the water source. However the incremental cost of collecting the data needed to support wise decisions pales in comparison to the true cost of ignorant exploitation of natural capital. The development of a length of pipe leaves a legacy that will rust in time. The development of knowledge-based stewardship of the water source builds a relationship between a community and the natural resource they depend on. This will create a legacy of well-informed decisions for balancing the distribution of potable and agricultural water in the context of ecosystem services, cultural and spiritual values for many generations to come.

Photo Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development | Digging for drinking water in a dry riverbed | License

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  • Timothy Chu
    Posted at 8:32 pm, March 20, 2012

    Thanks for the article. Informative as always.

    I do want to bring up the idea that meeting the clean water goal had less to do with improved access to water resources, and more to do with the migration of people to urban centres (which in nearly all cases, will have access to water). From Wikipedia (I’d quote the original source, except that’s no longer existent) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China

    By the end of 2011, the mainland of the People’s Republic of China had a total urban population of 691 million or 51.3% of the total population, rising from 26% in 1990.[1]

    This migration would alone be able to account for the success of the Unicef goal in “reducing, by half, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015”, if we make the generous assumption that rural citizens probably do not have sustainable access to water sources, and those in cities do. In much of the world, I’d expect this to be the case, which I think does diminish the victory of the unicef goals somewhat.


  • Natalie Sheh
    Posted at 5:43 pm, March 27, 2012

    Thanks for the insightful comments Tim!

  • Menakshi
    Posted at 6:20 am, August 31, 2015

    Your post has moved the debate fordraw. Thanks for sharing!

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