Three out of ten people (2.1 billion people in 2015) do not have access to safe drinking water, six out of ten (4.5 billion people in 2015) do not have access to safely managed sanitation services, and one out of nine (892 million people) practice open defecation.

Improved water resources management and access to safe water and sanitation for all is essential for eradicating poverty, building peaceful and prosperous societies, and ensuring that ‘no one is left behind’ on the path towards sustainable development.

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 (WATSAN) programmes

Bolstered by these insights, UN-Habitat set up high priority water and sanitation (WATSAN) programmes 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. Some of the programs include:

UN-Habitat’s Water and Sanitation Trust Fund

In 2003, to support its WATSAN initiatives, 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.

Global Water Operators' Partnerships Alliance

Water Operators’ Partnerships (WOPs) are peer-support arrangements between water and sanitation​ operators, carried out​ ​on a not-for-profit basis, to support the operators’ capacity to provide quality​ services to all. The Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA) is the global mechanism ​​set up to promote and support WOPs worldwide​ and led by UN-Habitat​. GWOPA is the global leader in WOPs promotion, facilitation and coordination, and the principle source for WOPs knowledge and guidance. It aims to see effective WOPs contribute to meeting national and global water and sanitation objectives including those relating to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Human Right to Water.

Learn more about GWOPA