Meeting the Millennium Development Goals

The global efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals and Johannesburg Targets are of particular importance to people without access to water.

This page has information on the progress made so far to meet the MDG targets, recommendations of what action is needed to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, and limitations to the Goals.

Progress made in meeting MDG targets

The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) of WHO and UNICEF keeps track of progress in meeting the MDG targets on water and sanitation, collating countrywide and region specific data on access to ‘improved’ water sources and sanitation coverage, through censuses and surveys. ‘Improved water sources’ are defined as household connections, public standpipes, boreholes, protected wells, protected springs and collected rainwater. The JMP also produces disaggregate data on rural and urban water connections and highlights whether these represent household connections or public stand pipe facilities.

The Joint Monitoring Programme’s 2008 report indicates that progress towards attaining these goals has been mixed. The good news is that the world is on target to meet its MDG on drinking water, if global trends persist.

  • In 2005, 87% of the global population had access to a source of ‘improved’ drinking water, and it is now estimated that by 2015, this will be over 90%.
  • In Northern Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and West Asia, coverage levels are already over 90 percent.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa there has been an increase in coverage of 9 percent, but this progress has fallen short of that needed to achieve the MDG by 2015. Obstacles to accelerating progress in this region include political instability, population growth and the low priority given to water services in national budget allocation.

The report is more pessimistic about achieving the sanitation target. It states that without a significant acceleration in progress the world will miss its sanitation target by 700 million people. The sanitation situation is most severe in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The report also draws attention to the disparity between the access to water and sanitation of rural and urban dwellers and stresses that more effort is needed to reach the poorest citizens. Based on current trends, the total number of people without access to improved sanitation will only have reduced to 2.4 billion. One billion people still practice open defecation.

Source: JMP, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation; Special Focus on Sanitation, UNICEF, New York and WHO, Geneva, 2008.

Recommendations for action to ensure water and sanitation for the poor

The Millennium Project’s analytical work on water and sanitation is undertaken by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation. The role of the Task Force is to focus on what it would take to expand water supply and sanitation coverage in a sustainable manner.

In 2005 Roberto Lenton, Co-Coordinator of the Task Force set out some recommendations for the achievement of the targets on water and sanitation.

ACTION 1: Governments and other stakeholders must move the sanitation crisis to the top of the agenda.

ACTION 2: Countries must ensure that policies and institutions for water supply and sanitation service delivery, as well as for water resources management and development, respond equally to the different roles, needs and priorities of women and men.

ACTION 3: Governments and donor agencies must simultaneously pursue investment and reforms for improved water supply, sanitation and water management.

ACTION 4: Efforts to reach Target 10 must focus on sustainable service delivery, rather than construction of facilities alone.

ACTION 5: Governments and donor agencies must empower local authorities and communities with the authority, resources and professional capacity required to manage water supply and sanitation service delivery.

ACTION 6: Governments and utilities must ensure that users who can pay do pay in order to fund the operation, maintenance and expansion of services – but they must also ensure that the needs of poor households are met.

ACTION 7: Within the context of national MDG-based poverty reduction strategies, countries must elaborate coherent water resources development and management plans that will support the achievement of the MDGs.

ACTION 8: Governments and their civil society and private sector partners must support a wide range of water and sanitation technologies and service levels that are technically, socially, environmentally and financially appropriate.

ACTION 9: Institutional, financial and technological innovation must be promoted in strategic areas.

ACTION 10: The United Nations system organizations and their Member States must ensure that the UN system and its international partners provide strong and effective support for the achievement of the water supply and sanitation target and for water resources management and development.

Source: Water and Sanitation for The Unserved Poor, Roberto Lenton, Co-Coordinator of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation, 2005.

Limitations of the MDGs in human rights terms

The continuing focus on the MDGs plays a crucial role in highlighting particular development needs, and for increasing political and financial commitment to development assistance with a variety of actors, from national to local governments and from international finance and development institutions to local community groups.

However, there are limitations to the goals in human rights terms that should also be considered.

Lack of universality

The targets for water and sanitation are to halve the proportion of people without access to water and sanitation. In human rights terms, this target could be extended to universal access within a further timeframe.

Affordable access

The MDG targets for water and sanitation do not specify that water and sanitation services be affordable, although this was previously included in the Millennium Declaration that preceded the MDGs.

Wider sanitation services

The sanitation target only considers access to a safe toilet or latrine, but does not assess whether wastewater, sewage and/or excreta from latrine exhaustion is disposed of safely. This causes risks for polluting water sources and the living environment. There is also no provision for hygiene promotion and education, a crucial aspect of water and sanitation services.

Non-discrimination, access to information and participation

While it is understood that the MDGs are intended to improve life for the poor, this is not specifically mentioned in the targets relating to water and sanitation. MDGs do not include measures to ensure the human rights principles of accountability, non-discrimination and access to information and the right to participate. The right to water and sanitation can therefore supplement the MDGs by promoting developmental processes that target the most disadvantaged groups, rather than those to whom services can easily be provided.