Water & Sanitation


Icons-05Huge progress has been made in the past 25 years to provide people with safer water, and as of 2010, over 6 billion of the world’s population has access to improved drinking water sources, up from 4 billion in 1990. Likewise, sanitation coverage has also increased in the developing world, from 36% of the population in 1990 to 56% in 2010. Although this is commendable, over 1.1 billion individuals still lack access to a water from a clean, safe source, and over 2.6 billion people do not have access to toilets and other adequate sanitation facilities. This lack of access is a primary cause of water contamination and water-borne diseases.

From an urban perspective, and especially in the developing world, challenges related to water and sanitation will magnify in the future due to an ever growing city population needing to share already insufficient and poorly managed resources. Urban water distribution and sanitation systems are all too often derelict and unable to cope with the growing demographics, and many of the urban poor tend to be excluded from these services anyway. Paradoxically, low-income urban dwellers have to pay high prices for water, sometimes up to 50 times the price paid by higher income groups.

Access to safe water for everybody
Despite the fact that there is sufficient clean freshwater in the world for everyone’s essential personal and domestic needs, these resources are unevenly distributed. Today, 11% of the world’s population still lack access to water that is safe for consumption. This figure rises to over 40% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, in densely populated areas, the absence of proper sanitation facilities almost inevitably leads to massive pollution and contamination of the available water resources, for instance through the improper disposal of fecal waste. Unclean water poses serious health hazard risks, which have tangible impacts on education and economic activities due to illness impairment, especially amongst the most vulnerable population groups such as the urban poor. Prioritizing water and sanitation issues is therefore crucial in the overall urban development effort.

Strong Frameworks for Better Development

Improving the water and sanitation situation in an urban setting is not an easy task, as the required infrastructure, either new or upgraded, needs to be accommodated by already existing structures, such as roads or buildings, but must also be able to sustain future urban developments and expansion. The intrusive nature of these projects, often involving disruptive and expensive construction work, poses a major challenge to these development efforts.

This calls for strong legislation, guidelines, and building codes, which can only be instituted and monitored by national and local governments. They are the key actors in setting up the conditions of sound development in the water and sanitation sectors. Authorities not only need to endorse the roles of policy makers and resources allocators, but must also function as regulators of service provision to guarantee universal access, quality standards, and fair pricing. This becomes even more relevant in places where water and sanitation services are externalized to the private sector.

UN-Habitat’s Water and Sanitation programmes

Bolstered by these insights, UN-Habitat set up high priority water and sanitation (WATSAN) programmes, now under the responsibility of its Urban Basic Services Branch, to help the UN member states attain the water and sanitation targets set by the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to “halve by 2015 the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

 Through these programmes, UN-Habitat provides both policy, technical, and financial support to governments and local authorities, thus contributing to the achievement of these internationally agreed goals. Focus is particularly set on the urban poor, in order to facilitate equitable social, economic, and environmental development.

The Goals of UN-Habitat WATSAN Programmes and Initiatives
  • Enhance awareness of water and sanitation issues and encourage the application of guide documents, norms, standards, and toolkits by the water and sanitation sector and UN-Habitat partners.
  • Form strategic partnerships among key water and sanitation stakeholders such as the United Nations, development banks, donors, urban centres, utilities, non-governmental organizations, and communities to promote increasing levels of investment in UN-Habitat programmes.
  • Train water and sanitation sector stakeholders to enable them to develop, provide, and manage improved water and sanitation services.
  • Encourage water and sanitation institutions in participating countries to replicate local initiatives as a consequence of increased investment flows and with the involvement of local communities.
  • Work with water and sanitation institutions in participating countries to develop enhanced capacity to track progress towards internationally agreed targets based on improved information systems and enhanced monitoring frameworks.
  • Include the human settlement dimension in the World Water Development Reports. Publish the Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities reports and ensure that pro-poor and gender focused governance frameworks are available and in use.
Water and Sanitation Goals Set by the UN

In 2000, the member states of UN General Assembly committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). That pledge included the objective to reduce the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 50% in 2015. During the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002, participating governments renewed their commitment to this goal, even expanding the goal to include basic sanitation as well.

Furthermore, in 2002, to address the current water and sanitation issues, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), a body of the UN Human Rights Council, drafted General Comment N˚15, a policy on water and sanitation that states that access to safe water and sanitation is a universal human right. Although not legally binding, General Comment N˚15 declares that water should be sufficient, continuously available and safe to use, for both personal and domestic uses. Likewise, water and sanitation services should be accessible within one’s immediate vicinity and affordable to all without any discrimination.

Guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) for drinking water quality, which provide guidance on good practices for ensuring that drinking water is adequate for human health can be found at the Water Sanitation Health website of the WHO. Every person needs a minimum of 20 litres of water per day to meet the minimum basic requirements, although this amount may still lead to health concerns. Governments and authorities should therefore aim to guarantee at least 50 to 100 litres of water per person per day.

UN-Habitat’s Water and Sanitation Trust Fund

To support its WATSAN initiatives, in 2003 UN-Habitat established the Water and Sanitation Trust Fund (WSTF), which currently supports water and sanitation projects in 27 countries (as of 2012) involving a wide range of partners, including families, communities, governments, and like-minded organizations. The WSTF is a consolidated fund that eases access to investment funding and provides an opportunity to donors to improve their aid affordability.

The main focus of the fund and related programmes is currently improving delivery of water and sanitation in Africa and Asia through two regional programmes, Water for African Cities, and Water for Asian Cities. These initiatives promote policy dialogue, information exchange, water education, and awareness raising. They also include progress monitoring towards achieving the MDG water and sanitation targets as well as promoting best practices and replicable model-setting initiatives, notably through the Lake Victoria Region Water Initiative and the Sanitation and Mekong Regional Water and Sanitation Initiative.

The Global Water Operators Partnerships

Besides the Trust Fund, UN-Habitat also supports water and sanitation systems rehabilitation during humanitarian emergencies. In addition, UN-Habitat hosts the secretariat of the Global Water Operators Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA). Since its foundation in 2007, the Alliance has been promoting and enabling effective water operators’ partnerships (WOPs) aiming at capacity development of municipal operators and scaling up peer-to-peer support between water and sanitation operators around the world.

Read the GWOPA strategy paper 2013-2017