Multifaceted Access to Water

by Anindrya N

If you live in North American and European countries, getting water for drinking is as easy as open the faucet in your own home. But such a thing is a luxury for many people in the developing countries. Defining “access” to water supply is often problematic as there are many layers behind the simple word.

Physical access to water often refers to the classification of the WHO and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) ‒the United Nations’ mechanism to monitor progress in the water and sanitation sector. The JMP classifies water supply sources into piped water in premises, other improved sources (i.e., protected dug well, borehole, protected spring, and rainwater harvesting), and unimproved sources (i.e., unprotected dug well, unprotected spring, bottled water, and water from vendors). Having access to water means having some types of “improved” water sources at home. “Access level” is often measured by the percentage of the population using improved drinking-water sources.

At the global level, the present monitoring framework focuses on measuring the level of access: the proportion (un)served by improved water sources. For example, Indonesia had the fifth highest proportion of the population without access to improved water sources globally; yet these classifications merely serve as a proxy indicator and only encapsulate the technological outlets of household water sources and do not equal safe water. Physical access may not necessarily lead to the sustained use of improved water sources nor bring the intended development outcomes, i.e., health and economic benefits. Since the 1980s, it was recognised that the positive health impact from “access” to improved water sources can only emerge when it is related to “functionality”.

“Access” comes with various ranges of quality, quantity, continuity, and affordability; the so-called “dimensions of access”. Even when people have access to piped water, it often has inadequate quality and quantity, is intermittent, or is unaffordable. The recent, wide-scale Rapid Assessment of Drinking Water Quality (RADWQ) in five countries, Ethiopia, Jordan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Tajikistan, by Bain and colleagues, measured the compliance of different water sources with standards for bacterial and geogenic or natural contaminant levels. The RADWQ reported that 32 million out of 70 million people with access to improved water sources do not have water resources that comply with tested water quality parameters. This suggests that water supply often does not meet the requirements of good dimensions of access, even in the improved types.

Meanwhile, equity entered the “playing field” since the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation through Resolution 64/292 and the ratification of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) in September 2015. The concern over equity largely revolves around the uneven progress across populations, based on income, region, type of area (rural/urban), and the marginalisation of the poorest. Globally, progress has been slowest in the least developed countries and other low-income countries, as 84% of the population without an improved drinking water source lives in rural areas; twice as many people in the urban areas of the developing regions have gained access to piped water than in rural areas, and the richest quintile is over twice as likely to use an improved drinking water source as the poorest . A recent study in Bhutan concludes that wealthier households have access to safer water sources than their poorer counterparts, with both education and income as strong determinants of access.

The next question is, how does such a complicated definition of “access” affect policy and monitoring strategies?

Blindly adopting the rigid definition of “access” may cause a blunder in assessing performance. For example, in Indonesia, before 2011, households having access to improved water sources” are those whose water for drinking purpose coming from an improved source defined by the National Statistical Office. Afterwards, rather than water for drinking, the classification of households having access to improved water sources is determined by the type of water used for bathing/washing activities. This change of classification, of course, provides an illusion that the trend to improved water sources was increasing since most of the Indonesian households are using bottled water for drinking, which originally classified as “unimproved water sources”. Later, the JMP re-classifies bottled water as “improved water sources” when water for other domestic activities is obtained from an improved source. This, however, does not explain how to classify the usage of multiple water sources, in which households often combine improved and unimproved sources because the former cannot satisfy the adequacy of water needs.

Some scholars linked the multifaceted elements of water access with policy and monitoring strategies. For example, according to Starkl and colleagues, policies focusing on expanding the level of access towards “improved technologies” may lead to a higher concentration of hidden failures, e.g., technical non-functioning. Onda and colleagues stated that when adjusting the current Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) estimate by accounting for microbial water quality and sanitary risk, there was a shortfall of 10% of the global population towards the MDG target in 2010, suggesting that better attention to the water safety aspect is needed.

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