Measurement Matters: Water and the Millennium Development Goals

It is just over one year since UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a significant milestone in progress towards meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The goal of halving the proportion of the global population without access to safe water had been met, and several years ahead of the target date of 2015. Naturally this bit of good news merited celebration, especially as several other MDGs remain stubbornly resistant to progress, for example in the areas of hunger, maternal mortality, and employment. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was upbeat: “Today we recognise a great achievement for the people of the world. This is one of the first MDG targets to be met. The successful efforts to provide greater access to drinking water are a testament to all who see the MDGs not as a dream, but as a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people.”

It wasn’t long, however, before some wondered whether the celebration was premature. The main sour note, acknowledged in the announcement, was the fact that the related goal of ensuring that 75% of the population has access to improved sanitation was still far from being met, and is not likely to be met by 2015.

Another issue raised by water NGOs was whether the achievement of the headline goal masked the reality on the ground. Ned Breslin, CEO of the US NGO Water for People, took issue with the fact that achievement of the goal was based on the metric of “access” to an improved water supply, rather than on the functionality of that supply. In other words, populations might be reporting that a handpump was available to them but the data was silent on whether this supply was actually working. Breslin cited examples of studies in Mozambique, Liberia and Malawi where detailed data collected on the ground painted a less rosy picture: in the case of the Sanga district of Mozambique, Breslin estimated that 21.91 per cent of the population had access to a functional improved water supply, in contrast to the 72.9 per cent reported by UNICEF/WHO’s Joint Monitoring Project (JMP).

The JMP, however, would deny that their figures take no account of functionality. Their access estimates are based on extrapolating from household surveys or national censuses the number of people who “use” an improved water supply, implying that respondents would only report use of a functional supply.

The other measurement issue is whether access to “improved” water supplies is really a valid proxy for access to “safe” water supplies. The only way to get an accurate figure for the proportion of the global population using safe water would be to undertake water quality testing everywhere, which is not currently practicable. The assumption made by the JMP is that an improved water supply, i.e. piped water or water from a protected well, is safer than water drawn directly from unprotected or polluted rivers and ponds. However it acknowledges that access to an improved supply does not necessarily mean access to safe water. Nobody knows precisely how many people lack access to safe water, with estimates falling in the range one to four billion, compared with the JMP’s estimate of 783 million without access to an improved resource.

The main message from all this wrangling over metrics is that measurement is difficult, costly, and contentious. Everybody wants to be able to monitor impact, but national governments and international donors are sensitive to costly research projects using up money that could otherwise be directed to providing infrastructure. Nonetheless there are efforts underway to improve the quality of data available on progress towards universal access to safe water. The WASH Monitoring Exchange is the initiative of a group of NGOs, funders and academics to find the best balance between cost and reliability in monitoring the sustainability of water projects undertaken by development organisations. While it is aimed primarily at tracking NGO projects, if a reliable and cost-effective set of indicators emerge it could have wider applicability. Others are making use of multiple data sources to model the likely discrepancy between “improved” and “safe” water supplies.

Measurement matters, but it has to be acknowledged that the Millennium Development Goals are not primarily about selecting the most accurate indicators of global development: they are about rallying the global community around a series of agreed common objectives which are specific enough to be tracked but general enough to be easily understood. With the 2015 target date now close, it is less useful to argue about the right indicators for tracking progress up to that point than to learn from the MDG experience to set out the most effective goals for the post-2015 period. As well as balancing cost and reliability of data collection, the UN must ensure the chosen indicators encapsulate a vision of improved quality of life that is broad enough to be widely accepted.

This process of developing a post-2015 framework got underway in earnest at the start of 2012. A UN “Special Event” will be held in September 2013 to review progress towards the MDGs and it is hoped that this session will also consider the post-2015 framework. The Irish Presidency of the EU has an important role in the unfolding discussion, as it works to bring together the Union’s common position on the future of development policy in advance of the Special Event.

The broader issue is that the MDGs are a snapshot: they are based on capturing the status of indicators at a set point in time, as well as tracking progress towards that target date. The goals set out for the post-2015 period should encapsulate sustainability over time. This is particularly true in the case of water, given the high failure ratesof water systems, not to mention the multiple stresses that might threaten or reverse progress towards universal access to safe water, including climate change, population increase and conflict. The post-2015 vision must be of development progress capable of being sustained into the future: this might mean integrating development and environmental goals.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

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