15 Jul 2015

In 1976, when I first proposed the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, it was with the aim of providing clean water to all people by 1990.

By clean water, I meant water that can be drunk without any health concerns. And by sanitation, I meant wastewater should be collected from houses, carried to a treatment plant, properly treated and then discharged safely to the environment.

However, this concept has been diluted by international organisations, which focus instead on “improved” sources of water and sanitation. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) define an “improved” drinking-water source as one that, by the nature of its construction and when properly used, adequately protects the source from outside contamination, particularly faecal matter. An “improved” sanitation facility is one that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact.

Sadly, these definitions sometimes have no relation to the quality of water. For example, if cement is poured around a well, it becomes an “improved source” of water, even if the quality within the well may have deteriorated significantly.

Asit K. Biswas, distinguised visiting professor, in The Malaysian Insider, 10 July 2015.