Finally, the world's drinking glass is more than half full
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Among the forces driving progress has been an approximate $3 billion in annual investment from among the 189 nations whose heads of state in 2000 signed onto a common goal: to cut in half by 2015 the proportion of people worldwide who lack sustainable drinking water and basic sanitation. Progress is measured against benchmark data from 1990.Skip to next paragraph
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The effort so far has produced mixed results. The world is on track for its drinking water target, with South Asia leading the way in terms of rapid progress, according to the WHO/UNICEF report. But sanitation tells a different story, as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania are falling behind the timetable.
Tight funds pose one obstacle. Engineering conditions also vary, which means mountain folk who can take advantage of gravity's pull might get water more easily than those in a flat desert. Politics plays a role as well, especially in the developing world's sprawling megacities, where the water sweepstakes can mean big savings for shack dwellers at the expense of hefty profits for their landlords.
For instance, in the capitals of Indonesia, Haiti, and Bangladesh, recent arrivals from the countryside now take shelter beneath tin slabs and boards and commonly depend on a landlord's illegal water-line tap, according to WaterPartners' Smith-Nilson. This means that they must pay inflated rates, anywhere from 10 to 100 percent higher than those paid by legitimate water-district customers. As a result, the poorest of the poor are spending between 25 and 75 percent of their incomes on water, which may not even be safe to drink.
"You're never going to get ahead in life if you're spending all this money for water," Smith-Nilson says. "You'll never get out of the slum."
Nevertheless, in locales where running water has arrived, health is measurably improving, according to studies conducted by the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University. Rural Honduran communities with water projects demonstrated fewer incidents of diarrhea and less growth stunting than in unimproved areas, according to the center's 2003 studies. In such areas, where intestinal diseases kill more infants than does any other cause, family life is apparently being transformed.
"We're talking about women who have six children and three die before the age of 5 versus situations when the children don't die," says Christine Moe, codirector of the center.
Looking ahead, water- development experts see a challenging landscape. Dr. Moe says poor sanitation poses a lingering threat to clean-water sources. Projects lag behind in part because few politicians want their "pictures taken next to a latrine or sewage-treatment plant." Among other roadblocks cited by Kevin Lowther, Africare's regional director for Southern Africa: weak economies, war-ravaged infrastructure, and an AIDS crisis that's leaving scant extra money for other African priorities.
Still, water and sanitation projects are most achievable when indigenous beneficiaries step up to borrow what they need and pay it back, Smith- Nilson says. Ownership leads to long-term responsibility for upkeep, she says, as well as pride in accomplishing an important task.
"This sort of improvement shows these kind of goals are achievable," Ms. Wardlaw says. "But we still have a long way to go."