Safe water: A quality conundrum

OECD Environment Directorate

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Achieving the Millennium Development Goal on water should not only require extension of access, but proper maintenance of existing infrastructure, too. It is a long-term challenge.

When world leaders agreed upon the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000, and then staged the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, they set themselves some ambitious world poverty reduction goals: the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). One of the MDGs is to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. That goal is turning out to be a more complicated proposition than many expected.

Since the 2000 summit, a UN structure known as the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), created to check progress on implementing the various targets set, has come under repeated criticism on the grounds that the indicators used provide a distorted picture of the challenge faced. Quite remarkably, they fail to take account of whether the water to which people have access is really safe to drink and whether access is sustainable.

Most minds focused on access pure and simple, but perhaps in the rush to act, overlooked the monitoring of the MDG on water supply and sanitation in situations where infrastructure already exists, but is deteriorating. This is a problem, since not only does it affect the safety of drinking water, but many developing countries, particularly their larger towns and cities, already have some kind of infrastructure in place. Questions abound: why is the drinking water deteriorating and what can be done to fix the situation?

Consider the countries of the former Soviet Union. The JMP finds that the share of people in the group of countries known as Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) having access to an improved drinking water source has increased since 1990, with 93% of the population having access in 2002 and about 70% having access to improved sanitation. From these figures, the JMP concludes that the EECCA region is essentially on track to meet the internationally agreed drinking water targets.

However, these indicators paint an overly optimistic picture. Extensive urban infrastructure built in the Soviet era provides a large share of the population with in-house tap water connections. But today much of it is in such a serious state of disrepair that it does not provide sustainable access to safe drinking water to very many people. Also, data gathered by the OECD and other bodies suggest that the situation has been deteriorating significantly over the past 15 years.

Leakage, continuity of supply and actual water quality are all problem areas. The water distribution network shows high leakage, reflecting the poor condition of pipes, as well as perhaps illegal water abstraction. Similarly, continuity of supply has been deteriorating. And while water quality tests at intake into the network may show only a limited number of samples that are below sanitary standards, that water eventually becomes contaminated as it flows through the distribution network. What comes out of the tap is not necessarily what goes into the system.

The main reason for discrepancies between the official UN statistics and other available data on this subject in the EECCA and elsewhere lies in the fact that the statistics used for monitoring only measure whether people have access to an “improved” water source, rather than whether the water from such sources is actually safe. Nor do the indicators ask whether access is sustainable. Improved sources are defined as in-house tap connections, water from stand pipes, protected wells, etc.

The trouble now is that the situation exemplified by the EECCA countries is having a serious negative impact on public health. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 13,000 children under the age of 14 die every year in the ECE (Economic Commission for Europe) region, mainly in the EECCA countries, because of poor water conditions. This crucial issue is likely to be replicated in many other parts of the world, too, unless new approaches are adopted to address it adequately.

What can be done? As a starting point, there is a clear need to develop complementary indicators quickly as an aid to sound policymaking, such as on leakage and quality of water at the tap. These would be added to official MDG data about access to water supply and sanitation. Building the data would require additional financial resources, of course, particularly since adequate information in these respects is not normally available in developing countries. On the other hand, not collecting the data will make the goal of clean water far more difficult to achieve.

A much trickier financial question is how to stop and reverse the decline of existing water infrastructure. For example, in the case of the EECCA countries, between 50 and 90% of water utility revenue is currently generated by user charges, and the remainder mostly comes from public budgets. But these funds are not enough to cover operational costs, let alone maintenance and capital expenditure. Also, significant up-front investment will be needed to improve operational efficiency in many cases.

Improving the collection of user charges is one approach that would help boost funds. In the case of the EECCA countries, amounts collected can currently be as low as 30 to 40% of sums billed. Those unpaid bills are another serious leakage from the system to be plugged.

At the same time though, water tariffs for households are often too low and will have to be increased, sometimes sharply. The good news is that in many cases those increases can take place without causing major affordability problems. In others, especially where poverty is widespread, tariff changes would need to be accompanied both by improvements in service quality to generate sufficient willingness to pay and by social measures to support the poor, such as direct subsidies to consumers.

However, even retrieving unpaid bills and raising prices will not be enough to circumvent the need for higher public spending on the water sector. In some countries, this may mean devoting 3 to 4% of public budgets to the urban water sector alone. Competition for funding from other social and economic sectors will often make this difficult to achieve. In extreme cases, policymakers may have to consider the trade-off between providing better water for some, or some quality water for all.

In the former Soviet state of Georgia, where 50% of the population lives below the poverty line and 17% in extreme poverty, the MDG targets on water could be achieved if the existing urban infrastructure were scaled back. That might mean that city dwellers currently connected to an in-house but low-grade water supply may be better served if they could fetch water from safe municipal standpipes.

Except in a few very poor countries, domestic rather than external resources will continue to be the dominant source of finance. Official development assistance for EECCA countries is presently at just US$100 million per year, and even if increased significantly, would still remain a small part of the US$8 billion in overall funding that is needed for operation, maintenance and investment. On the other hand, care must be taken to avoid crowding out domestic financial sources, as has happened in the new EU accession countries. Private operators are generally keen to become involved in water and sanitation projects where they can contribute know-how, management and leasing contracts, but they have been reluctant to bring in the needed finance.

Nonetheless, even at low levels, external finance can underpin financial and governance reforms in the water sector, build capacities, and bring in internationally accepted disciplines and good practices. Multilateral organisations can also step up their efforts, such as the Environmental Action Programme Task Force set up by environment ministers from a UN body, the Economic Commission for Europe, in 1993 for EECCA countries. Action undertaken in this framework, and supported by the OECD, includes the development of practical tools and approaches to support legal and institutional reforms, as well as assistance to improve the financial situation of the water sector.

With a range of committed players involved and the right focus, much can be done to achieve the development goal that really counts–that of the sustainable quality and delivery of healthy water.


Börkey, Peter (2003), “Water partnerships: Striking a balance”, OECD Observer No. 236, March.

OECD (2006), Financing Water and Environmental Infrastructure: The Case of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Paris.

OECD (2006), Financing Water Supply and Sanitation in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, proceedings from a conference of EECCA ministers of economy/finance and environment and their partners, 17-18 November 2005, Yerevan, Armenia.

©OECD Observer No 254, March 2006

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