The United Nations has announced that more than two billion people gained improved access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2010, meaning that 89% of the world's population is using better water sources.
That number is actually better than the target set out by the UN's Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which had aimed to divide in half the number of people in the world without any access to safe drinking water by the year 2015.
The MDGs are a series of development targets agreed to by all UN member states at the organization's Millennium Summit nearly 12 years ago, many of which are meant to be achieved within the next three years. Some MDGs have already passed their due date (such as universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment to all who need it by 2010, and the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005); others look increasingly difficult to meet.
The goal to improve access to drinking water, however, was met ahead of schedule, and is the second MDG success story: Last month, the World Bank announced that the target of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015 had also been met.
"Today we recognize a great achievement for the people of the world," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday after the release of the world body's report on drinking water targets. "This is one of the first MDG targets to be met. The successful efforts to provide greater access to drinking water are a testament to all who see the MDGs not as a dream, but as a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people."
Despite the undeniable achievement of meeting the drinking water targets, many warned that much work remained to be done - including the authors of yesterday's report. The Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF's Join Monitoring Programme for Water says that 11% of the world's population (some 783 million people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa) have no access to safe water. The second half of the MDG relating to water and health is also nowhere near being met, with close to 2.5 billion people lacking access to basic hygiene and sanitation - a situation responsible for a large number of health-related deaths.
"Better water, sanitation and hygiene are key to improving human health and development," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. "Today, even with this exciting new progress, almost 10 per cent of all diseases are still linked to poor water, sanitation and hygiene."
The number of people with better access to drinking water is not spread around the globe evenly, either, with most of the two billion living in either China or India. Many areas of Africa will likely fail to meet the 2015 targets, including some that will see water access actually reduced to pre-1990 levels.
"Reaching the MDG water target is cause for celebration. However, there is no room for complacency: nearly 800 million of the world's poorest people still live without this basic human need," said David Winder, the CEO of water rights NGO WaterAid America. "With a renewed commitment, we could reach everyone in the world with clean water in just a generation. The world's poorest communities deserve a concerted effort."
But that doesn't mean there still isn't reason to celebrate. While much work remains to be done, concerted efforts by the international community, member states, and countless NGOs, foundations and individual activists and donors have made a very tangible improvement in the lives of billions of people.
"The numbers are still staggering," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake yesterday about the many who still lack access to safe drinking water. "But the progress announced today is proof that MDG targets can be met with the will, the effort and the funds."
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