WASH and Environmental Sustainability: The Need for Integrated Objectives

WASH targets within MDG7: Achievements to date

Fifteen years after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) came into force, a number of reports have communicated the progress made against each target and what remains to be achieved. Two particular targets of MDG7, "Ensuring Environmental Sustainability," are relevant to WASH.

Target 7.C is to "halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation." To date, 2.3 billion people have gained access to improved sources of drinking water, yet many remain at risk due to poor or nonexistent water treatment; 77 countries have met the sanitation target, but 79 countries are off-track to achieve the goal by the end of 2015. That leaves 2.5 billion people still without access to improved facilities, and 1 billion still practicing open defecation.

Target 7.D, "achieve, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers," was met in advance of the deadline, with more than 200 million slum dwellers gaining access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities and durable or less crowded housing. However, there have been fundamental questions raised about the nature of the achievements, and if the changes made do indeed constitute a "significant improvement in the lives of slum dwellers" -- particularly in the context of the environmental sustainability goal under which this target falls.

Should we provide basic WASH services without considering wider environmental sustainability issues?

Such efforts would be counterproductive: Failure to account for issues of sustainability right from the outset will lead to negative repercussions that may in some cases drive the poor back into a state of vulnerability. For example, providing unlined pits in urban settlements reduces open defecation, but risks groundwater contamination. Not only are such solutions dangerous for ecosystems, but also for people: for their health, their environment, their livelihood.

WSUP has witnessed the construction of toilets in low-income communities that discharge contaminated blackwater directly into nearby open drains and waterbodies. In addition to causing degradation of water sources, this may represent an immediate threat to the health of the local population.

This can be addressed by connecting toilets to sewers; or collecting rather than locally discharging blackwater. But in high-density slum communities, these solutions are typically costly and difficult to implement and operate. Constructing a toilet with a septic tank providing partial treatment is generally an improvement on what was there before, an affordable step up the sanitation ladder, even if it does not entirely resolve either the health threat or the environmental contamination issue. This highlights the tensions between social and environmental priorities, a stress that the MDG7 has attempted to address in the formulation of its targets. And, of course, the challenges of WASH provision in low-income settlements are not technical, but rather institutional: Long-term solutions are fundamentally dependent on good and equitable governance.

Universal WASH coverage cannot be achieved without considering services in a context of environmental sustainability. The consequences of poor water and sanitation management will only lead to social, economic and political issues further down the line. It is therefore about a common engagement in which decisions are taken more collaboratively, and where social and environmental trade-offs are considered together.

Combining WASH service-provision with ecological objectives: It can be done!

Improved WASH services and ecological objectives can be mutually compatible. A prominent example is WSUP's work supporting urban water utilities to improve water efficiency by reducing Non-Revenue Water (NRW): the total amount of water produced by the utility for which no revenue is received, comprising both physical losses (due to leaks and theft) and commercial losses. In some cities NRW can be as high as 90 percent, translating to a loss of millions of cubic meters of water per year; this represents massive revenue losses for the utility, a needless waste of precious water resources, and a hugely reduced volume of water available for supplying new customers.

One example where efforts to reduce NRW have had a significant impact is Nairobi, where WSUP partners with Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. As a result of technical support and capacity-building activities, NRW was reduced from 95 to 75 percent over a period of six months; network improvements increased the quantity and quality of water available for approximately 5,000 low-income consumers, and the initiative contributed to the establishment of a NRW Department and a citywide NRW program.

Initiatives such as NRW offer a "win-win" solution in the quest for environmentally sustainable WASH services: A more efficient deployment of existing water resources is good for the environment, good for water utilities and good for consumers!

This blog post is part of the "WASH and the MDGs: The Ripple Effect" blog series, in partnership with WASH Advocates, addressing the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to global development. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. To learn more about WASH, visit the WASH Advocates website, and for more information about the Millennium Development Goals, click here.