Why Access Isn’t Enough: We Need Safe, High-Quality Water as a Service

Editors Note: In this post Andy Narracott, Deputy Director of Global Safe Water, discusses how we can ensure equitable and sustained access to safe water.

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There has been huge progress made in improving access to safe water. This year, the number of people without access to an improved drinking water source fell below 700 million for the first time in history. This means that more than 6.6 billion people, or 91% of the global population, has an improved drinking water source, up from 76% in 1990. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 427 million people gained access to an improved drinking water source, an average of 47,000 people per day, every day, for the last 25 years.

‘Access to an improved water source’ refers to a water source—such as a well or spring—that, by nature of its construction and when properly used, adequately protects that source from outside contamination, particularly fecal matter.

This might seem like great news, and in many ways it is. But measuring whether people have access to water alone is not enough; it is a static measure that only gives a very high-level indication of progress towards one dimension of what it means for people to have safe water in the home.

This measure does not take into account how sustained this access to safe water is over time. What happens when the hand pump breaks or the new well runs dry?  Measuring a snapshot in time does not account for whether there is access to safe water in the future.

It also does not account for the actual use of safe water systems. Uptake by users of safe water products is notoriously low when it is reported at all. It is also often only measured by unreliable recount. And lastly, measuring access does not say anything about the quality of the water that is actually consumed by users in the home. In fact, there has been no explicit requirement that the water should be drinkable at the point of use.

Imagine a rural and largely poor community in Malawi. Individuals there have to fetch water at water points that can be miles away. This is back-breaking work when you consider that a full ‘jerrican’ weighs the same as the maximum baggage allowance on most airlines. By the time the water is brought home and stored for later use, all it takes is a dirty cup or child’s hand to make the water unsafe to drink. Yet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) count this as a success so long as there is a well or other protected source within a certain distance.

Infrastructure, such as a well or a pipe, is not sufficient to ensure sustained access over time, good quality water, and consistent use by the most marginalized communities. Research has shown that increased access alone makes no impact on diarrhea rates, which is the second biggest killer of children under 5.

We think that the new WASH Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are more useful. They place an equal focus on a continuous supply of water, of good quality, at an adequate price. Where urban water networks exist, this is an achievable set of goals. But in rural areas, in the home when water sources numbers in the thousands and are widely dispersed?

With technology like Dispensers for Safe Water, this is possible.

Evidence Action has a network of 27,000 chlorine dispensers across 5,500 square miles, in three countries currently serving 4.5 million people. The dispensers were rigorously tested in randomized controlled trials and are served by a robust chlorine distribution and maintenance supply chain that ensures 98% uptime across three countries in even the most rural areas.

Dispensers are salient to users because they are installed directly at the water source. Evidence Action is focused on achieving high levels of usage by making water chlorination the norm through local community promoters. Dispensers are also highly cost-effective compared to other interventions, and they are equitable, targeting communities with the least access to consistently safe water.

Water is central to equitable development, and we welcome this renewed global focus on ‘safe water as a service’ that takes into consideration a sustained supply of water, of good quality, at an adequate price.