UN Water Conference

Access to drinking water : the major change in the global objective in 2015 comes up against stubborn technocratic habits

Women collecting water in Bardera province, Somalia. @SolidaritesInternational

A traditional approach looking at the infrastructure provided

In the twentieth century, developing access to drinking water was a question of infrastructure. While in 1900, few people had access to safe water, the number of people with access to safe water gradually increased with the development of public water systems carrying water that was treated to be safe. All over the world, investments have made it possible to increase what is called the “coverage rate” of drinking water, i.e. the proportion of the population with access to drinking water. The French language bears the trace of this era focused on infrastructure: indeed, having access to “eau potable” (drinking water) has two meanings: it can mean consuming potabilized or decontaminated water, i.e. safe water, but it also means having access to the public network, to city water, having taps at home considering that this distributed water is supposed to be safe. Infrastructure, coverage rate, distribution area, all this was very technocratic and technocentric.

At the global level, this approach was used in the first “Water Decade” and then in the Millennium Development Goals 2000-2015.  The UN Member States set themselves the objective of reducing by half the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking water before 2015. A global indicator was used to monitor progress. This was the “coverage rate” of access to “improved water sources”, defined as infrastructure of an acceptable technical type: networks, deep wells or wells protected from animals.  Thus, from 2000 to 2015, the world has turned its efforts towards the creation of certain infrastructures by improving their coverage rate, an approach that is still very technical and technocratic. In France, it is the municipalities that had the “competence of drinking water”, i.e. the responsibility of supplying water in their public networks, but they had no obligation towards the individuals who did not benefit from it or did not benefit from it well.

August 1, 2015 – Dar Paing camp, Sittwe zone, Rakhine state, Myanmar.
A woman does her laundry. @VincentTremeau/SolidaritesInternational

In 2010, the world’s view of drinking water changed. Access to safe drinking water is recognized as a human right! Oh, this is nothing new, it was already the case since the implementation in 1977 of one of the two great treaties on Human Rights but nobody had seen it! What was accepted in the 20th century has become intolerable in the 21st century. Lawyers can then define 6 precise criteria and implementation principles for this human right. The national public authorities find themselves responsible for progressively implementing the satisfaction of this right, which is a real novelty.  However, the link with public policies is not immediately made. The United Nations are still aiming for a coverage rate of 88% by adapted infrastructure and they triumphantly announce that this 2015 objective is already reached in 2012.

From infrastructure to needs: the major change in political objective for 2015

Between 2012 and 2015, all States discuss and negotiate the future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And they adopted completely new and much more ambitious access targets than before.  They unanimously decide to aim for universal access to safe and affordable drinking water from now on.  Universal access means access for all. The issue is no longer the construction and provision of infrastructure. The new political objective is that everyone, without exception, should have satisfactory access to water, regardless of their living conditions and physical characteristics. It is no longer a question of building infrastructure that people use as they can, but of ensuring that everyone has access to what they need. This is a major change of perspective: the political focus moves from supply to needs. It is a paradigm shift, as some people like to say at the United Nations. In order to emphasize the coherence with the human right to access to safe drinking water, this right is explicitly mentioned in the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly that adopts the SDGs. In addition, all the SDGs are governed by a chapeau that establishes a higher political objective, that of “leaving no one behind”. In 2015, therefore, the world adopts a new political vision of access to clean water.

New knowledge to monitor needs and progress towards the new goal

The first to draw consequences were the United Nations statisticians. New goals mean new statistical indicators. And indeed, in 2016, the UN adopted a new indicator, the coverage rate of access to “safely managed water services.” This new statistical indicator was defined to best reflect the 6 human right satisfaction criteria. Thus, the access to safe drinking water measured today includes 5 of them. This change in perspective and indicators has led to a radical change in the importance of the problem. Thus, in 2015, the number of people without access to safe drinking water suddenly increased from 660 million, as was believed at the time, to 2.2 billion! The WHO-UNICEF joint statistical team does a fantastic job of collecting, analyzing and publishing the values of these indicators and their constituent parameters for each country, for each major region of the world and for the planet. Everything is available online for those who want to use this new detailed knowledge.

 Additional assistance from the international community is needed to help the people of Al-Minsahla and throughout Yemen, where living conditions are deteriorating daily. Access to water is becoming increasingly difficult and alarming levels of malnutrition are being reported in some parts of the country. Photo: ECHO/T. Deherman

Have these new goals and statistical insights led to a shift in public policy from supply to need?

UN reports and debates struggle to adapt to the shift in policy focus

This shift may have occurred in a few places but not really at the global level. The UN system is having a hard time changing its focus. The mental patterns persist. Despite all the UN declarations on inclusiveness or human rights, the habits of considering the subject mainly from the angle of the rate of coverage of supply persist.  Thus, the WHO, UNICEF and UN-Water reports that present new knowledge and guide “political” recommendations to governments still focus on coverage rates and their “progress” over time, with detailed graphs by world region showing changes over the last few years (see Figure 1). In contrast, the information provided by these reports on progress in reducing the number of people without access is very limited. While the total number of people without adequate access is very visible, their numbers in different geographic regions, in rural and urban areas, and the changes over time in these components are not even published[1]. Yet the same statistical data provide both coverage rates and numbers of people in need. It would therefore be very easy to focus the reports on needs and their variations over time. The quality and availability of the information available is exactly the same. But this information on needs is not presented or commented on. Habits of focusing thinking and policies on technocratic coverage rates are persistent. A comparison with the food debate shows that the approaches are very different. For the fight against hunger, the UN only communicates on the number of hungry people. No one is interested in the number or proportion of those who eat to their fill! So, why is it that for the objective of universal access to safe drinking water, a human right, the UN is still not trying to count, identify and characterize the 2 billion people whose access to water is deficient?

Figure 1 Details on 2015-2020 coverage rates from UN reports presented to policymakers
(the same visualizations exist for rural and urban settings). Message received by the reader: “all is well, access is progressing everywhere”. (Extract from State of the World’s drinking water, WHO, Unicef, World Bank, October 2022)

Beware: progress in infrastructure can mask an increase in needs

How to make good policies by looking at problems from a different angle than the objectives to be achieved?

The difficulty in changing the way we look at things permeates political decisions, with very perverse effects. Indeed, the coverage rate is a poor measure of progress towards the SDG 6.1 target of universal access. An increase in this rate can even mask an increase in the number of people without access, i.e. a move away from the objective. This is not a mathematical curiosity; it is unfortunately a statistical reality that affects hundreds of millions of people in areas of high population growth. It is also a political reality. Thus, in 2019, States passed a resolution at the United Nations in which they congratulated themselves on their collective progress in access to safe drinking water, a boast that was facilitated by official reports that visually highlighted progress in coverage rates in all regions of the world (see Figure 1) but where it was impossible to read or see that the number of people without safe drinking water was increasing alarmingly in Sub-Saharan Africa and was also increasing in the urban half of the world’s population.

Figure 2. A visualization of needs that does not exist in the UN reports reports, although the data exist. Graph drawn by the author

In Europe, public policies are gradually adapting to the new water vision of 2015

On the other hand, the shift has been remarkably initiated by the European Union, which at the end of 2020 integrated into its legislation the obligation for public authorities to identify people without access to water or with insufficient access, to evaluate possible solutions and to implement them by devoting the necessary resources, thus consecrating the change of vision and objective of 2015 at the global level.

In France, organized for generations on the supply of public services and not on needs, the will to achieve universal access only officially appeared in 2019 in France’s Roadmap for the 2030 Agenda, the strategy adopted by the national government for the implementation of the SDGs in France. Pursuant to the recent amendment of the European Drinking Water Directive, it is on January 1, 2023 that this goal was integrated into French legislation with the obligation for public authorities in charge of drinking water utilities to identify people without satisfactory access to safe drinking water and to implement solutions for each in a timeline that extends to 2030. Let’s hope this new policy is implemented seriously. In order to be able to declare in 2030 that there are no more French people without access to safe drinking water, we will have to improve our statistical system by then. Indeed, today, the system gives almost no information about French people who are not connected to public water networks or on the regularity of access, which are major problems in overseas territories. In addition, the indicator proposed in 2019 by the National Council for Statistical Information to describe access to water for homeless people (homeless, migrants, etc.) still does not exist.


As part of UNICEF-supported water trucking services to address water shortages caused by drought, a water truck fills a 10,000-liter tank with water next to Gonka Kebele Comprehensive Primary School (sub-district) in the Hintalo Wejirat Woreda Mountains (district) of Tigray Region, Ethiopia. @UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Hema Balasundaram

At the UN Conference in New York, progress in infrastructure or progress in reducing needs?

In March 2023, the first United Nations Conference on Freshwater in 45 years will take place. The issue of access to drinking water and sanitation will be one of the main topics of discussion. Each country, each actor will present what it does well for water management. But will we continue to talk about progress in infrastructure or will we finally look at what remains to be done and talk about progress and difficulties in reducing needs? Are we going to accept that access to safe drinking water or sanitation is deteriorating for certain populations and aim for a political leap forward to reverse this dynamic? All governments will arrive at this Conference knowing full well that a radical acceleration of efforts is necessary. The UN speaks of a quadrupling. But no acceleration is yet perceptible. Will the trigger occur in New York in March 2023 or will a new UN Freshwater Conference be needed very quickly?

Gérard Payen

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Advisor to the UN Secretary General (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of many water-related global Sustainable Development Goals. Today, he is a director of three major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilize the international community for a better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. Simultaneously, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce global water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water-related problems, ideas that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.

[1] With the notable exception of basic access to water, an insufficient level of access, for which these data are published

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