Potability, Politics, and Pipes


Potability, Politics, and Pipes
By David Zetland
A Guest Post (Freakonomics)

In 2000, the United Nations declared an intention to reach eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) — each with one or more targets — by 2015. The MDG’s are attracting a lot of money, but money can’t fix everything.

Since I’m a water guy, I’ll explain how money may not work by looking at Target 3 of MDG 7:

Halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Let’s begin with some baseline figures: According to the U.N., 78 percent of the world’s population had access to improved drinking water sources in 1990. As of 2004 (most recent data), that share was 83 percent. (For sanitation, the figures are 49 percent in 1990 and 59 percent in 2004, but let’s ignore this sub-target for now. Let’s also ignore the 1990 baseline for a program that began in 2000.)

But wait, did you notice the discrepancy? The goal being measured and pursued (improved drinking water sources) is not the originally proclaimed goal (sustainable access to safe drinking water). This discrepancy is no accident. Rather, it reflects the difference between the ambitions of development activists (safe and sustainable) and the realities of development bureaucrats.

The rest of the post with a sequel is interesting at how we “solve” problems through a narrow lens.