South African nations off pace for MDGs on water and sanitation

Tanzania - Girl misses school to carry water home. --Tom Murphy

Only two countries in Southern Africa are likely to achieve improved access to safe water and improved sanitation, by the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The more than 100 million people without safe water and the 174 million without proper sanitation face serious health risks, due to the problem.

“Southern African governments must meet their past promises on water and sanitation and, together with donors, invest at the levels needed to put an end to the crisis that causes hundreds of thousands of children’s lives to be prematurely and needlessly extinguished,” said Robert Kampala, Water Aid’s Head of Region for Southern Africa.

Falling behind means that 40 million people who should have gained access to safe water by 2015 will not. Catching up will come at a price, says the UK-based NGO Water Aid in a new report. The region needs to see spending increase by $3.6 billion per year if it wants to fix the problem.

The massive problem comes with deadly consequences. More than half of all children in Madagascar are affected by diarrhoeal disease, which is more often than not the result of poor water and sanitation. Diarrhea alone kills 14,000 children under five years old each year, in the country. The effects extend to missed school and work, both of which make it harder for families to earn and living, thus slowing down progress for an entire nation.

The news is slightly better for safe water advances than it is for sanitation, in the region. Of the 12 countries in the region, 7 are nearing universal access for water. The rest are off track, says the report. At present, less than half of all people living in the DR Congo, Madagascar and Mozambique have access to clean water. Sanitation is far worse with only three countries on track.

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Students wash their hands on Global Handwashing Day. (Western Kenya)
Kenyan students wash their hands.
Tom Murphy

The stand out is the Seychelles. Located just north of Madagascar, the tiny island nation also has far and away the lowest poverty rate of all countries in the region. It is on the brink of universal coverage for both water and sanitation. Botswana is the second country that is on track in both categories, but still has a ways to go from its current 64% sanitation coverage.

The gains are closely tied to spending. Botswana is actually spending more than is necessary to achieve the water and sanitation MDGs. The same cannot be said for its neighbors. South Africa has an annual financing gap of $1.269 billion despite spending roughly two-thirds of what is needed. Further north, Tanzania stands out as a country that is well behind what is needed. Presently, 1.6% of Tanzanian GDP goes towards water and sanitation, that number needs to be 7.5%, says Water Aid.

International assistance is just as imbalanced. For example, the Seychelles gets $57.2 of water and sanitation aid per person. Madagascar and the DR Congo, who are way behind on both water and sanitation receive $0.60 and $1.00 respectively. The disorder in the two countries is a major factor. The Congo is still bogged down by its civil war. The serious security situation in the east has drawn far more attention from the international community, while the feeble government has favored the west. Madagascar is emerging from a political crisis caused by a coup. Aid slowed down significantly when a former DJ came to power in 2009. Elections held in late 2013 were a positive step in the eyes of donors.

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However, aid is not the answer says the report. While Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia as evidence that aid does not always go where it is needed, they are held as examples for increasing government budgets for water and sanitation. That starts with meeting the commitment to spend at least 0.5% of GDP on sanitation and hygiene, as the governments agreed in the 2008 eThekwini declaration. Nearly six years later, not one government in Southern Africa has yet to live up to their promise.

Doing so will help ensure that progress is maintained, even when donors change how much they are willing to given from year to year. Further progress can be attained by linking water and sanitation. People who have worked in the sector have long advocated for water, sanitation and hygiene to be seen as intimately connected issues. Hence the use of the acronym WASH.

“It is essential that Southern African leaders not only turn their past promises into reality, urgently completing the unfinished business of the MDGs in the region, but also that they commit to a target by 2030 of achieving universal access to basic drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for households, schools and health facilities. This must be a central element of the post-2015 development framework,” says the report.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.