Magazine article UN Chronicle

Achieving Universal Access to Water and Sanitation

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Achieving Universal Access to Water and Sanitation

Article excerpt

At the start of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly of the United Nations I emphasized our common goal: peace and a decent life for all people on a sustainable planet. Many leaders echoed this overarching priority at the general debate and beyond. One very important element of this is universal access to water and sanitation. At a most basic level, human beings cannot survive without water. Equally important is sanitation, a lack of which negatively affects our quality of life and claims the lives of millions each year.

One thing is clear: we all share a common goal of achieving universal access to water and sanitation. We have come a long way towards achieving this goal but we have much further to go.

Water runs through every single United Nations priority. Lack of access to water and sanitation can undo progress made in the areas of development, human dignity, and peace and security.

The pressing question is: how can we meet the existential challenge of ensuring access to water and sanitation for everyone once and for all?

I would like to reflect on three things: many problems in accessing water and sanitation still exist; we have come a long way in combating these problems; and we have a lot more work to do. The launch in March of the International Decade for Action, "Water for Sustainable Development", 2018-2018 will propel us to reach further.


The statistics on water and sanitation are alarming. In 2015, 844 million people still lacked access to safe drinking water. More than 2.3 billion people still did not have basic sanitation services and 892 million people practised open defecation.

For people on the ground, especially the vulnerable, these numbers translate into hardship, insecurity and loss of livelihoods. For instance, women and girls in some developing countries still embark on dangerous journeys in search of drinking water or to defecate in the open because they do not have access to toilet facilities, which exposes them to violence, including sexual abuse. Further, children are dying from entirely preventable diseases, resulting from poor quality water and sanitation. Diarrhoea is the second leading cause of death in children under 5 years of age.

Water can also be the source of disasters and conflicts, presenting an obstacle to meeting many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The frequency and severity of water-related disasters are increasing dramatically. They claim lives and disproportionately affect progress towards achieving the SDGs in developing countries, in particular the most vulnerable, such as small island developing States and the least developed countries. Due to the constantly growing demand for water provoked by many factors, including population growth, food and energy production, and the adverse impacts of climate change, water resources will become increasingly scarce. Therefore, it is expected that tensions over access to water could intensify at both the national and international levels. In this context, the Global High-level Panel on Water and Peace estimates that by mid-century, close to 4 billion people, which represents about 40 per cent of the world's population, will live in water-stressed basins. (1)


Despite these alarming projections, providing access to water and sanitation is possible and we have made some improvement. However, the progress achieved has been uneven and many people are still being left behind.

It is against this backdrop that Member States of the United Nations have put a special focus on the critical issue of access to water and sanitation during the last few decades, starting from the first United Nations Water Conference, held in 1977, in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

More and more, the United Nations General Assembly has been recognizing the centrality of water to sustainable development. From the Millennium Development Goals, which established a target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water (2) to the General Assembly's recognition of water and sanitation as a human right, the United Nations has laid the foundations. …

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