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Poor state of water and sanitation services: Why ignorance is reshaping our future?

Research output: Other conference contributionPaper, poster or abstractScientific


Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014
Duration: 12 Nov 201413 Nov 2014


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This paper diagnoses the lack of understanding and ignorance of consequences due to unviable water services. In terms of water quality and related services, access to improved water sources and to sanitation facilities remains a key development challenge. Between 1990 and 2008, access to improved water sources increased by 1.8 billion people, however 240 million people are still expected not to have access to an improved water source by 2050, primarily in developing countries. This problem is particularly acute in urban areas as the share of city dwellers without access to treated water actually increased between 1990 and 2008. The share of people without access to treated water is also expected to increase in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Millennium Development Goal for improved water supply is unlikely to be met.

Worse still, nearly 1.4 billion people are expected to have no access to basic sanitation services in 2050. 2.6 billion people still do not use improved sanitation, whilst 884 million people do not use improved sources of drinking water. Of critical importance is the fact that access to an “improved” water source does not necessarily mean access to “safe” water fit for human consumption. As a result, half of Africa’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease. While the service coverage estimates identify the order-of-magnitude of the problem, the numbers of people threatened by poor management of constructed systems is much greater.

Investment in water infrastructure can reduce the strain on government health budgets by reducing external costs from adverse health impacts resulting from poor water and sanitation services. Benefit-to-cost ratios have been reported to be as high as 7 to 1 for basic water and sanitation services in developing countries. The social benefits that water and wastewater services provide are well known, including reduced mortality and morbidity from waterborne diseases. Most of these benefits accrue outside the financial accounts of the infrastructure investor, creating a significant gap between “project” and “social” rates of return. Since the development of water and wastewater infrastructure grew out of the public health revolution in the late 1800s, there is a strong link between public health and the development of water and wastewater utilities.

Provision of adequate infrastructure and basic services to the poorest populations in developing countries will be an essential step to protect these communities and to build resilience to external stressors. In developing countries, access to water and sanitation services is a fundamental precondition for poverty reduction and economic progress. The multiple benefits of providing access to water and sanitation in terms of health, life expectancy, and the freeing of time for education and economic activities, are well known. Yet, the prevailing paradigm has been for decades and still is: Although investments in water and sanitation services are producing unquestionably high rate of returns, we’ve much more fashionable items on our agenda, such as climate change, integrated water resources management, food and water security, green economy, water as a human right. Therefore the needed investments are not simply done.

Field of science, Statistics Finland