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Nearly 950 million practice open defecation

New figures from UNICEF and the WHO examine sanitation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Jul 1, 2015

More than 650 million people worldwide continue to live without access to safe, clean water, while as many as 2.4 billion people do not have a basic, hygienic toilet, a joint monitoring program report by Unicef and WHO has revealed.

The news comes as the last in a series of regular updates provided by a UNICEF-WHO joint monitoring program that tracks global progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a 15-year framework for eradicating extreme poverty that includes an ambitious target to reduce the proportion of people living without access to clean water and toilets by half.

With the September 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals rapidly approaching, the target on water has been met overall, but wide gaps in places including Sub-Saharan Africa continue to demand action, as does the target on sanitation, which has failed dramatically.

For the first time, the joint-monitoring report also includes analysis on hygiene behavior alongside safe water and improved hygiene, highlighting wide variability in the presence of handwashing facilities with basic soap and water.

Handwashing has been called the most cost-effective health intervention available by the World Bank, but has been poorly measured, funded or researched to date. The report indicates that handwashing ranges from nearly zero in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, to around 80% in areas of Southern Asia.

“The global water and sanitation crisis is one of the most critical, yet achievable challenges of our time. With each new Joint Monitoring Report, the global community not only has an opportunity to celebrate the progress that is being made, but also double down on our commitment towards meeting the fundamental needs of the millions of people still living without the basic water and toilets that so many of us take for granted.

The consequences of life without safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are dire: half a million children die unnecessarily each year, while so many others suffer needlessly from under-nutrition, physical stunting and cognitive delays, missed education, and increased vulnerability to physical and sexual violence.

Billions of people continue to live in extreme poverty. The remarkable progress made to date in regions stretching from North Africa to Latin America proves that a world where everyone, everywhere has access to clean water and basic toilets can, in fact, be achieved. The global community, and especially our governments, cannot rest until every one of these people has the same quality basic lifesaving services that we ourselves enjoy.”

- Sarina Prabasi, Chief Executive, WaterAid America

Among the highlights of the UNICEF-WHO findings:

  • India has more than doubled the proportion of people using improved sanitation (18 to 40%) since monitoring began in 1990, but over 560 million people in India still practice open defecation, more than half the global total of 949 million.
  • Since 1990, the world’s Least Developed Countries (by UN definition) have seen an increase of over 40% in the number of people without basic toilets as their population increases, although the proportion of people defecating in the open has more than halved.
  • While the UN goal on water has been met globally, much of this is due to rapid progress in China and India. Progress has been uneven from region to region, and very little has changed for the world’s poorest people.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama have the lowest access to sanitation.
  • Nearly 700 million people in Africa alone don’t have a basic toilet, and over 200 million defecate in the open. Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation and its largest economy – has actually shown worsening trends, with decreasing access and increasing open defecation.
  • In the United States, 6% of people living in rural areas do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • There has been progress. Ethiopia has managed to reduce open defecation by 66% in rural areas, from 100% to just one-third of the population, and has almost eliminated the practice in urban areas. Rwanda has also managed to all but eliminate open defecation and has tripled the number of people with access to basic sanitation.

Next month world leaders will travel to the UN International Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss how to finance the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ahead of their adoption in New York this September. Access to clean water, basic sanitation and good hygiene, as presently outlined in Goal 6 of the proposed SDG framework, are critical to the creation of a healthier, more equitable world.

WaterAid is calling for water, sanitation and hygiene indicators to be included in goals on health, education and gender rights. Sanitation was among the most off-track in the Millennium Development Goals, while hygiene was not included in the MDGs at all despite its importance to public health. These are mistakes which must not be repeated.