Water and Sanitation

MDG Goal 7 (Ensure Environmental Sustainability) as it relates to water and sanitation aims by 2015 to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The target, it seems was met in 2010, according to the UN. Yet also in 2010, some 783 million people still relied on unimproved drinking water sources, 2.5 billion people still had no access to improved sanitation facilities and 1.1 billion people worldwide continue to practise open defecation (WHO/UNICEF 2012 Joint Monitoring Report: Progress on drinking water and sanitation).

Water & Sanitation – Quick Facts


  • 89 per cent of the world’s population (as at 2010), used improved drinking water sources (the target was 88 per cent) and 92 per cent are expected to have access by 2015
  • Between 1990 and 2010, two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources
  • Eleven per cent of the global population, or 783 million people, are still without access to safe water and WHO/UNICEF report that by 2015, 605 million will still not have access


  • Globally, 63 per cent of the population use improved sanitation facilities, an increase of almost 1.8 billion people since 1990
  • In 2010, an estimated 2.5 billion people were still without improved sanitation, but is expected at current rates to reduce to 2.4 billion by 2015
  • 1.1 billion people (15 per cent of the global population, 2010 figures) practice open defecation, of which 949 million live in rural areas.
  • If current trends continue, the world will not meet the MDG sanitation target, despite the progress made. It is expected that a coverage of 67 percent will be reached by 2015 – 8 percent short of the 75 percent target.
  • At current rates, the goal is not expected to be reached until 2026.

Source: WHO

Regions and countries

  • China and India account for just under half the global progress on sanitation.
  • Some 593 million people in China and 251 million in India have access to improved sanitation since 1990.
  • Sub -Saharan Africa accounts for more than 40% of the global population without access to improved drinking water and is one region that is not on track for meeting the drinking water target. Some success stories who have met global targets: Malawi, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Namibia, and Gambia.
  • Liberia is on track to meet the target.

The big water debate – to privatise or not to privatise…?

The debate around the efficient use of water is centred on placing the control of water resource management in the hands of the private sector, where the flow (or not), volume and cost of water is determined by the markets.

Currently, the water industry is controlled by both the public and private sector. The extraction, treatment and delivery of freshwater is generally owned and/or managed by the public sector (i.e., the government) who contract some parts out to private companies and vendors and involves some subsidies, some public-private investments and of course the market forces.

The relationships and roles differ from one government to the next with some governments controlling the treatment systems and pipes, whereas in other places, private industry may have a monopoly, for example where water vendors sell to households that are not reached by public utilities.  Usually, it is a mix of both where each has their own vested interests.

The Debate…

“privatisation has produced the intended benefits”

  • In many poor countries in the developing world, without private sector funding from international lending institutions, there may be no water supply. Governments often have no money to manage the high costs associated with providing water to its citizens – extraction, treatment, delivery and finance – and have little choice but to outsource to expensive private sector agents.
  • The issue of cost is significant in water conservation. Having to buy water through private channels often results in less wastage as people consider the costs for paying at market rates rather than heavily subsidised provision by the government.

‘privatisation is often seen as having failed much of the world’s poor’.

  • In their efforts to recoup often significant investments, private water companies usually increase prices on the water they provide.  In some cases, these price increases have been so hefty as to knock poor consumers out of the market entirely, leaving them, again, with no access to water because they cannot afford it even when it is physically accessible.
  • The UN Development Program notes that privatisation has hurt many in the developing world, where poor people pay some of the highest prices for water.  For example, the poorest 20% of households in El Salvador, Jamaica, and Nicaragua spend up to 10% of their income on water.     Privatisation schemes often appear undemocratic in that they exclude the citizenry from the decision-making processes in what was formerly a public utility.
  • Privatisation often results in local job losses as multinational corporations and conglomerates both reduce work forces through improved efficiencies and transfer jobs to workers in other countries.
  • When profit is a motive in water provision, less lucrative services often suffer.  Efficiency dictates that resources go where they produce the highest return – this means poor rural areas and other hard-to-serve customer bases get lower priority.
  • In some cases, private companies have retreated from particularly poor areas where returns on investment have been low or from areas where local resistance and protests against privatisation have made for bad public relations – see below.  In these cases, the cost of picking up the pieces is often higher for local governments than it might have been had the private companies not been there in the first place.
  • Cases in which privatisation has worked well usually include special voucher programs whereby purchases for those unable to afford water are subsidised by the government or aid organisations.

Many argue that water is a human right and as such, it should not be treated like a commodity.  However, a number of sophisticated investors believe that water could become the “new oil,” and this view is spurring considerable investment in the industry.

Going forward, it is unlikely that entire water systems will reflect a pure form of either private or public ownership.  Governments at all levels will likely still maintain a role in water regulation and management, no matter how the industry itself is funded.  The challenge is integrating all of the stakeholders so that water quality and access are maximised.

Case Study: Bolivia

Source: WorldSavvy.org

Bolivia is South America’s poorest country and the site of one of the world’s most notorious and controversial water privatisation programs.   In the 1990s, under World Bank guidance, the water systems of some of Bolivia’s poorest regions were put up for sale to private investors.  In the area of Cochabamba, the winner of an uncontested bidding process was a subsidiary of the US company Bechtel.  The immediate effect of Bechtel’s water investment and management was, as promised, expanded access to water by many previously unserved communities.  However, when the company took over local wells and informal pumps as well as the public system infrastructure, many consumers were priced out of the market, unable to pay the increased water rates, which in some cases had doubled.

In 2000, riots broke out in Cochabamba as protestors filled the streets.  Violence shook the confidence of the local government and international investors.  Bechtel was forced out, resulting not only in chaos in water delivery in the area, but dealing a serious blow to foreign investment in the country.

Undeterred, the French water giant Suez Company picked up a lucrative concession to provide water to the El Alto area of the Bolivian capital La Paz.  In 2005, however, residents of El Alto also took to the streets to protest high water rates, forcing the government to cancel the Suez contract.  In the wake of the ouster, tens of thousands of households were left with no water while the local government attempted to regroup on water delivery.

The Nation magazine featured the El Alto Water Revolt as a quintessential “consumer rebellion” – against the principle of water privatisation, against the results of water privatisation (high prices), and against the anti-democratic nature of water privatisation.

Bolivia’s example illustrates the complex problems inherent in applying private market solutions to what are essentially public sector problems.  The most successful solutions as water stress spreads globally will probably be those to which the public and private sectors both contribute.

Source: WorldSavvy.org. World Savvy is a US educational charity and an excellent source of educational materials