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Official data underestimate global water and sanitation crisis, showing need for improved monitoring

Official data on the number of people still lacking access to adequate water and sanitation services prove that the current situation is simply unacceptable: 884 million people lack adequate access to clean water and 2.6 billion lack access to proper sanitation, according to the WHO and UNICEF’s Joint Water Monitoring Program. Disease spreads rapidly with over one billion people forced to defecate outside due to a lack of sanitation and indoor plumbing; in fact, unsafe water and sanitation is the most important environmental cause of ill-health, with millions dying every year as a result of poor water, sanitation and hygiene conditions. Young children in particular tend to suffer from water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea.

Success in water supply and sanitation interventions is commonly measured in terms of the number of wells dug, public water points connected or public toilets constructed. This is what the official data - available at national scale only - reflect. The assumption is that every water point and every toilet will provide adequate and sustainable services to a fixed number of people. Too often, though, wells run dry, hand pumps break, toilets go “out-of-service,” or the quality of the water provided is not safe.

As a result the official data seriously underestimate the water and sanitation crisis. A realistic assessment requires continuous monitoring at local levels. Modern technology now makes that possible.

The H2.0 group of partners set out to demonstrate that community level monitoring of operational water and sanitation services is feasible at national scales. is one of the H2.0 partners. We have co-funded the effort and provided technical support. Yesterday the group launched the H2.0 platform at a World Water Week event in Stockholm. Over the past several years, the partners have collected detailed water and sanitation service data and developed a data management and mapping platform. This platform will enable users open access to analyse, visualise and interact with the data. We want to support government and development partners prioritize water investments and help NGOs and service providers assess their performance in a transparent manner.

Three components of the platform show Google tools in action.

The data show that the number of people with access to safe and affordable water is significantly lower than official estimates have previously shown:
  • For Kenya, the initial analysis of data collected by the Water Services Trust Fund shows, according to Han Seur of GTZ, that: “In over a thousand low income urban areas with a total population over 4.5 million less than 25% have access to safe and affordable water.”
  • For Tanzania WaterAid and partners mapped over 25 thousand rural public water points in 2006. Vincent Casey of WaterAid summarized their report as: “Water point data mapped by WaterAid Tanzania has demonstrated that nearly half (46%) of rural water points are not functional. A quarter of all new water points are no longer working just two years after installation.”
  • For Zanzibar, according to Graham Alabaster of UN-Habitat: “Counting only those who are paying less 10% of their income for water as having affordable access, the water access rate had to be revised from 90% down to 22%.”
Unfortunately this information implies that the water and sanitation crisis is affecting two to three times more people in the areas surveyed than the official data suggest.

Better data on water services can help consumers hold their water service provider accountable. H2.0 partner ITC developed the Human Sensor Web, a system that allows Zanzibar citizens to report water outages by SMS and receive alert messages on water quality and availability.

To understand the issue and invest in solutions that work, we need to stop measuring success as construction of taps and toilets, and start measuring success by monitoring the number of people with sustainable access to safe and affordable water and sanitation services.

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