Water, water everywhere… but not for all to drink

Post by former CYH blog team member Jannie.


This March, the United Nations proudly announced that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water has been achieved, three years ahead of the 2015 deadline. It claims that now 89% of the world’s population has access to “improved drinking water sources.”

Though certainly an impressive statement, it needs to be tempered with a few critical reflections. What, exactly, does this goal achieve?

The United Nations measures access by conducting household surveys on the type of facility used to obtain drinking water. This measure is likely an overestimate, as it leaves out other important details that determine access, such as water quality (ie. contamination levels), amount of water available, or distance to the water source. Conveniently, the cost of water also does not factor in – the MDG is silent on the structural conditions that created barriers to access in the first place. Control of water resources is critical, as a growing number of private companies appropriate and privatize water resources, selling it back to the community at exorbitant prices. Many institutions are even encouraging these practices as the solution: recently, the University of Alberta awarded an honorary degree to Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe “in recognition of his emerging and growing role as a worldwide leader in water resource management.” Nestle is one of the world’s largest producers of bottled water and a vocal promoter of water privatization.

The problem with setting an absolute number target as an MDG is that it ignores – and may even widen – existing inequities. Though 89% of the world now has “access to water,” over 780 million people still do not. And these 780 million people are among the most marginalized in the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 61% of the population is using improved water sources, compared to 80-90% in other regions. In the world’s rural areas, only 30%  have access, compared to 80% in the urban population. There are criticisms that, in the push to attain this MDG, efforts have largely focused on the easiest-to-reach populations where conditions lend to easy success, leaving the most marginalized even further behind.

And while the MDG has been directed at the global South, the North (including Canada) is hardly immune. There are currently 112 First Nations communities in Canada without access to safe drinking water, part of a persistent and shameful legacy that the government continues to neglect. Interestingly, when the United Nations solidified the right to water in international law in 2010, Canada was one of the 41 countries that abstained from the resolution.

What will this MDG mean after the 2015 deadline? Will reaching this MDG be an end within itself, deluding us into thinking that loose definitions of water access and 89% are good enough? Or will it draw further attention to this issue and strengthen our efforts towards water as a fundamental human right?

Achieving this MDG was a rare moment of celebration amidst projections that many of the other MDGs will fall short of their targets. Despite these failures, the United Nations is developing yet another set of goals post-2015, the Sustainable Development Goals, which will emphasize the role of private enterprises and the green economy as the way forward. Will water be included? Stay tuned for Rio+20