New York/Geneva, July 18 : South Asia has the highest rate of open defecation in the world at 48 percent, and is closely followed by sub-Saharan Africa (28 percent), says a report issued today by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Drinking-water Supply and Sanitation (JMP).
According to the report, 63 percent (750 million people) of all open defecation takes place in South Asia. It also has the lowest rural coverage in the world at 23 percent, and the largest urban-rural disparity in the world (57 percent to 23 percent)
There are once again more than a billion people (1,031,400 to be precise) without access to improved sanitation which represents an increase in 200 million people from the last report (2004 data, this is 2006 data).
Every day, over 2.5 billion people suffer from a lack of access to improved sanitation and nearly 1.2 billion practice open defecation, the riskiest sanitary practice of all, according to the report.
The JMP report, titled "Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation - Special Focus on Sanitation," comes halfway through the International Year of Sanitation.
The report assesses -- for the first time ever -- global, regional and country progress using an innovative "ladder" concept. This shows sanitation practices in greater detail, enabling experts to highlight trends in using improved, shared and unimproved sanitation facilities and the trend in open defecation.
Similarly, the 'drinking water ladder' shows the percentage of the world population that uses water piped into a dwelling, plot or yard; other improved water sources such as hand pumps, and unimproved sources.
The number of people globally who lack access to an improved drinking water source has fallen below one billion for the first time since data were first compiled in 1990. At present 87 per cent of the world population has access to improved drinking water sources, with current trends suggesting that more than 90 per cent will do so by 2015.
The number of people worldwide practicing open defecation dropped from 24 per cent in 1990 to 18 per cent in 2006. The report also highlights disparities within national borders, particularly between rural and urban dwellers. Worldwide, there are four times as many people in rural areas - approximately 746 million - without improved water sources, compared to some 137 million urban dwellers.
Poor sanitation threatens children's survival as a fecally-contaminated environment is directly linked to diarrheal disease, one of the biggest killers of infants under the age of five. A clean environment is very difficult to ensure if open defecation is practiced, even by a minority of the population.
"At current trends, the world will fall short of the Millennium sanitation target by more than 700 million people," said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director. "Without dramatic improvements, much will be lost."
However, more and more people are now using improved sanitation facilities - that is, facilities that ensure human excreta are disposed of in a way that prevents them from causing disease by contaminating food and water sources.
Though the practice of open defecation is on the decline worldwide, 18 per cent of the world's population, totaling 1.2 billion people, still practice it. In southern Asia, some 778 million people still rely on this riskiest sanitation practice.
"We have today a full menu of low-cost technical options for the provision of sanitation in most settings" says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO's Director-General.
"More and more governments are determined to improve health by bringing water and sanitation to their poorest populations. If we want to break the stranglehold of poverty, and reap the multiple benefits for health, we must address water and sanitation," she added.
Real improvements in access to safe drinking water have occurred in many of the countries of Southern Africa.
According to the report, seven of the ten countries that have made the most rapid progress and are on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal drinking water targets are in sub-Saharan Africa (Burkina Faso, Namibia, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, Djibouti). Of the countries not yet on track to meet the sanitation target, but making rapid progress, five are in sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Cameroon, Comoros, Mali and Zambia).
The report concludes by saying that the South Asia Region -Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Maldives - is not on track to meet the MDG sanitation goals.