Opening remarks at Budapest Water Summit

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Remarks during the opening ceremony of the Budapest Water Summit
Budapest, Hungary

9 October 2013

Excellencies, honourable Ministers, distinguished delegates, heads of sister UN agencies, members of civil society, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to address this summit, which draws together such a high level of expertise on water and sanitation, in such a broad range of disciplines.

I thank the government of Hungary for hosting the event and for providing political support at the highest level. I thank the organizers for preparing an ambitious and forward-looking technical programme. You aim to ensure that water and sanitation secure an appropriate place in the global agenda for sustainable development.

Water is a finite natural resource that sustains life and fuels many industries that contribute to economic growth. The integrated management of water resources is a prerequisite for further human development and environmental protection that benefits all: women and men, the rich and the poor, the highly industrialized and the least developed, our generation and all future generations.

I agree with the proposed Summit Declaration: access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene is fundamental to health, well-being, and poverty eradication. I also believe that realizing this potential requires collaboration from multiple agencies and multiple sectors of government, at levels ranging from grassroots demand to commitment by heads of state and government.

Progress over the past decade shows what can be achieved. The target for drinking water coverage, set by the Millennium Development Goals, was met last year. Childhood deaths from diarrhoeal diseases, which are strongly associated with poor water and sanitation, are steadily falling.

But not all the news is good. Monitoring reports, regularly issued by WHO and UNICEF, reveal great gaps in coverage, both within and between countries.

Worldwide, nearly 800 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. Billions lack access to safe water, reliably and continuously delivered in sufficient quantities. These are staggering numbers. Progress towards the target for sanitation is the most off-track of all the MDGs, and must command our urgent attention.

The MDGs represent the most ambitious attack on human misery in history. But they do have some weaknesses. These weaknesses need to be addressed as the world turns its attention to the formulation of follow-up goals for sustainable development.

As a first weakness, the MDGs were not designed to track the equitable distribution of benefits. As with other goals, progress in improving access to water and sanitation is based on population averages, and not on whether these improvements are reaching those in greatest need.

Second, the current goals address access to household water and sanitation only. While this is important, the reality is that most people spend much of their time outside the home. They need safe water and clean environments in all settings, including workplaces, schools, and health centres.

Speaking as a health professional, I am deeply concerned that many health care facilities still lack access to even basic water, sanitation, and hand-washing facilities, and I have committed WHO to support partners to overcome this problem.

Finally, the MDG indicator for water monitors access to improved water sources, such as piped water and protected wells or boreholes. It does not monitor the microbiological or chemical quality of the water.

Application of new low-cost microbial tests offers an opportunity to greatly expand direct measurement of water safety. At the same time, water quality testing will not solve all problems. By the time contamination is detected, it is too late. Unsafe water will already have been consumed, sometimes by thousands of people.

With this reality in mind, the WHO guidelines for drinking water quality, which have been issued since 1958, now place their main emphasis on the prevention of contamination through the concept of water safety planning.

Such planning calls for integrated risk assessment and risk management in the full chain of events, from the prevention of pollution in catchment areas, to the reliable performance of treatment works, to the delivery of safe, affordable, and sufficient water to consumers.

To date, water companies in more than 50 countries are implementing water safety plans. In more than 20 countries, a water safety plan is either promoted by policy or required by law.

The prospects for further improvements in access to safe water look good.

Not so for sanitation. Sanitation, together with hygiene, must be given a much higher place in any agenda for future development. As many others will note, sanitation, and most especially, open defecation, must be urgently and frankly addressed.

People tend to be very uncomfortable when talking about the disposal of human excrement, and the importance of hand-washing after defecation. This is true from discussions within communities, to debates in political circles.

In this regard, we can take some lessons from AIDS, a disease that was likewise shrouded by taboos. Once these taboos were shed, great strides forward were possible.

We need to do the same thing with sanitation. We need to talk about open defecation, toilets, and dignity.

Thank you.