UNICEF raises questions over safety of drinking water in urban areas in Africa

Access to improved drinking water and sanitation is extremely uneven within individual countries in sub-Saharan Africa according to The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund(UNICEF) reports.

The report, also raised questions about the safety of ‘improved’ drinking water sources in urban areas, may not always be free of contaminants, as the region was ranked poorly, only ahead of Oceania, with 68% among the world five developing regions, committed towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7) reliable drinking water target.

According the reports findings, since 1990 there’s been substantial increases in coverage of improved drinking water sources across many regions, with five developing regions meeting the MDG target of halving the proportion of the population without access.  Coverage of improved drinking water sources now exceeds 90 per cent in many developing regions. In contrast, less than three-quarters of the population uses an improved source in both Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the low ranking, UNICEF commended the achievement of the regions government in giving access to an average of 47,000 people every day since 1990, an increase of 20 percentage points.

Despite the achievements of the MDG period, the organisation says a ‘great deal remains to be done as huge disparities in access remain.

“The lowest levels of coverage, are found in Africa’s developing countries with only three countries, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Papa New Guinea with less than 50% of the population with no access to uncontaminated water.”

The report further estimated that almost 2 billion people use an unimproved source or an improved source that is contaminated with faecal indicator bacteria suggesting a need for greater attention to water safety and its management in many countries.

UNICEF therefore called for better tracking of improvements in service quality – including water safety, accessibility and availability.

It will be recalled that, last year, a joint report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF revealed that, more than two billion people – or one-third of the world’s population – will remain without access to improved water and sanitation by 2017.

A United Nations Millennium goal on clean water and sanitation calls for cutting in half the number of people who, in 1990, lacked potable water and clean toilet facilities. Last year’s WHO-UNICEF report noted that the world has met the target of cutting in half the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water, five years ahead of schedule.

The global assessment, however, may be masking progress toward the goal in Africa.

Matthew Freeman of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta is co-author of the report on clean water and sanitation distribution in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the study did not address the U.N.’s Millennium goals, Freeman says the assessment of worldwide progress toward increased access to clean drinking water is being driven largely by progress by emerging countries in Asia.

“China and India, their rapid urbanization and infrastructure investments have led to dramatic changes in access to improved water supply. So, globally that target was met; but, few countries in sub-Saharan Africa have met those targets,” said Freeman.

Experts are quick to point out there’s still time for the U.N. goals to be met in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries that have already achieved the clean water goal, according to experts, include Gambia, Congo, Gabon, Malawi, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Swaziland.