Counting how many people have water, sanitation and hygiene

6 min read

New data from UNICEF/WHO estimate the percentage of the global population using at least a basic level of service for drinking water and sanitation to be 89% and 68%, respectively. Stuart Kempster, WaterAid’s Policy Analyst for Monitoring and Accountability, looks into what we can tell from the estimates.

As the main source of data on global WASH access since 1990, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene (JMP) has been tasked with monitoring progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 6.1 and 6.2. The SDG Baseline Report, released this week, is JMP’s first comprehensive assessment of WASH services under the SDG framework. While highlighting some positive global trends, it also underscores the substantial acceleration of progress required to achieve universal access by 2030.

MDGs vs. SDGs: what’s new?

Throughout the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era, JMP monitored the number of people using ‘improved’ facilities (see here for definitions), and created ‘service ladders’ to capture progress made at lower levels of service. The SDG aim of ‘safely managed’ services has resulted in a new rung on top of these ladders, representing the increased global ambition.

Updated JMP ladders for drinking water and sanitation and a new ladder for hygiene

This increased ambition brings the SDG framework in line with the guiding principles of the human right to water and sanitation, and the global monitoring of hygiene is another welcome step forward given the numerous positive impacts of good hygiene behaviours. 

However, it is important that this increased ambition does not result in an exclusive focus on the top rungs of the service ladder. The concept of progressive realisation is central to both SDG6 and the human right to water and sanitation. Similarly, the SDG rallying cry of ‘leave no one behind’ requires the progressive reduction of inequalities. This demands that we prioritise improvements for those with the lowest levels of service and ensure they continue to climb the WASH service ladder until safely managed services become the norm for everyone.

What do the new data tell us about use of WASH services?

In the new report, JMP estimates that in 2015:

  • For drinking water 
    71% of the global population (5.2 billion people) used a safely managed service 
    89% of the global population (6.5 billion people) used at least a basic service
  • For sanitation 
    - 39% of the global population (2.9 billion people) used a safely managed service 
    68% of the global population (5.0 billion people) used at least a basic service

Estimates of safely managed drinking water services are available for four out of eight SDG regions

Some sobering facts remain. 844 million people still lacked even a basic drinking water service, 2.3 billion people still lacked a basic sanitation service, and 892 million people still practised open defecation.

The global estimates also hide large regional disparities. For example, while 94% of the population in Northern America and Europe had safely managed drinking water, this figure was only 24% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, 78% of the population in Northern America and Europe had safely managed sanitation services, but only 22% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

An estimated 600 million people used a limited sanitation service in 2015; that is, improved facilities shared with other households. In previous JMP reports, shared sanitation was classified as ‘unimproved’ – its reclassification as a ‘limited service’ is welcomed and helps to make the case for further investment in high-quality shared toilets where they represent the only viable option for improving service levels (e.g. in dense informal settlements). 

For many countries, significant differences exist between the final MDG assessment of improved drinking water and the new report’s classification of ‘at least basic service’. For example, 58% of the population of Eritrea was estimated to use an improved source in the 2015 report, but in this year’s report only 19% are estimated to use at least a basic service. To a large extent, these differences are explained by the new classification of limited drinking water services; that is, where people spend more than 30 minutes per round trip to collect water from an improved source. Again, we can see large regional disparities here – from 14% of the population using a limited service in Sub-Saharan Africa, to 1% in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, and 0% in Northern America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

For hygiene, only 70 countries had comparable data on handwashing with soap and water, which was neither enough to produce a global estimate, nor estimates for many of the SDG regions. National estimates were not possible in many high-income countries, where data on household hygiene are not routinely collected. Where regional estimates were possible, coverage ranged from 15% in Sub-Saharan Africa to 76% in Western Asia and North Africa.

What are the new data’s limitations?

Given data constraints at the national level, it wasn’t possible to produce estimates for safely managed services in the vast majority of countries. The JMP report covers 232 countries, yet national estimates of safely managed services were only possible in 96 for drinking water and 84 for sanitation. For basic hygiene, estimates were only possible in 70. Although the coverage of data is expected to improve as countries ‘domesticate’ the SDG targets, the current lack of data highlights a major challenge for the WASH sector. National governments and service providers need good-quality data to effectively plan and deliver sustainable services, and civil society needs this data to hold governments accountable for the commitments they have made.

In previous reports, global estimates of ‘improved’ WASH would only be made if data existed for 50% of the global population. The same rule holds true for estimates of ‘basic’ services in the current report. However, it is notable that the JMP have set a lower threshold of 30% for producing global estimates of safely managed services. 

Although there are clear benefits of producing these estimates – especially given their importance in SDG monitoring – there are also risks. First, the lower threshold necessarily produces a less robust estimate. Second, their publication may ease the political pressure to address gaps in the data – that is, presenting ‘No data’ for 6.1 and 6.2 at this year’s High Level Political Forum may have created greater political will to address the shortfall.

The second gap is around equality and non-discrimination. A central tenant of the SDGs is the progressive elimination of inequalities, which requires a baseline assessment of current levels of inequality in WASH access. JMP should be applauded for the work done on this to date, through the Equity and Non-discrimination (END) Working Group, and whilst the report includes good data on wealth-based inequalities and more data on geographic inequalities than in previous years, it should be noted that data on other inequalities are still lacking. The challenge will now be to implement the END working group’s full recommendations to ensure that baseline data are collected on issues such as disability, gender, and ‘elusive populations’ (such as the homeless or people living in informal settlements), which will make it possible to track the ‘progressivity’ of change through the SDG era.

Indicators indicate

As a final point, it is useful to remember that global indicators such as these can only ever provide an indication of the true reality. In addition, the information that is excluded from indicators may ultimately be as important as that which is included. For instance, although affordability is a central aspect of the human right to water, the challenge of monitoring this globally means that it does not (as yet) form part of the SDG indicator. As argued persuasively by Sally Engle Merry in Measuring the World, it is important that we don’t allow the apparent certainty of numeric indicators to obscure the messiness of reality or the political nature of progress.

Stuart Kempster tweets as @s_kempster