DURHAM, N.C. – Assessments by the United Nations’ Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) “significantly overstate” the extent of progress being made to improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a study by researchers at three U.S. universities.

“On paper, access to clean water in most countries looks great; it’s only when you break it down that you see the holes in the JMP assessments,” says Erika S. Weinthal, associate professor of environmental policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. 

“Factors like affordability, sustainability, and the substandard quality or intermittent nature of many of the ‘improved’ water and sanitation services aren’t being taken into account,” says Jeannie Sowers, assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

The JMP assessments, which are based on household surveys and national health questionnaires, are used by the United Nations to measure progress toward achieving its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving the proportion of people worldwide living without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015.  In 2008 and again in 2010, the JMP concluded that with few exceptions, countries in the Middle East and North Africa were on track to meet their MDGs.

The new peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Development and Change, paints a less rosy picture.  It finds that while progress is being made, discrepancies remain between the extent of progress reported by the JMP and the extent reported by many other surveys and studies.  The discrepancy is especially great in rural areas and densely populated informal settlements such as slums or migratory encampments on urban outskirts.

“These communities continue to be underserved,” says Neda Zawahri, associate professor of political science at Cleveland State University.  “Most governments have focused on upgrading water and sanitation services in urban centers and suburban areas where private investments are more readily available to help fund new infrastructure.”

Projects geared to serving isolated or nomadic populations rarely attract such funding, in part because the relatively simple, scaled-down technologies they employ – such as composting toilets – often don’t meet the JMP’s criteria for what constitutes access to improved water or sanitation, which is based chiefly on whether a household has access to a centralized infrastructure or treatment system, or trust the quality of water or service provided.

In Lebanon, for instance, the JMP reports a 100 percent coverage rate for access to improved drinking water in both urban and rural areas.  Yet a 2005 survey by the Council for Development and Reconstruction found that only about 56 percent of the population actually uses the public drinking water supply.  The rest rely on bottled water or private, unregulated sources such as wells.  Residents who can afford to rely on bottled water do so not only because of frequent supply disruptions in the public drinking water system, but because an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of both natural and piped water contains chemical or biological contaminants, according to UNICEF.

Similar issues occur in countries across the region, and underscore the fact “that even if these states achieve their 2015 goals according to current JMP assessments, we still may not know to what extent they actually have increased the proportion of their population with daily access to safe, affordable, sustainable water and sanitation,” Zawahri says.

To enhance the accuracy of its assessments and encourage investment in all projects, the JMP should establish minimum scientific standards to define what constitutes improved water or sanitation, says Sowers.  It also should place greater emphasis on ensuring access and affordability for the poor and less emphasis on built infrastructure.

“The Middle East and North Africa is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but has less than 1 percent of its available fresh water,” Weinthal notes.  “Projected population growth by 2025 is projected to shrink the per-capita water availability by 30 percent to 70 percent.  Faced with numbers like these, we need to make every drop of water and every investment dollar count.”