Understanding geographic inequalities in coverage of drinking-water supply and sanitation (WSS) will help track progress towards universal coverage of water and sanitation by identifying marginalized populations, thus helping to control a large number of infectious diseases. This paper uses household survey data to develop comprehensive maps of WSS coverage at high spatial resolution for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Analysis is extended to investigate geographic heterogeneity and relative geographic inequality within countries.
Cluster-level data on household reported use of improved drinking-water supply, sanitation, and open defecation were abstracted from 138 national surveys undertaken from 1991–2012 in 41 countries. Spatially explicit logistic regression models were developed and fitted within a Bayesian framework, and used to predict coverage at the second administrative level (admin2, e.g., district) across SSA for 2012. Results reveal substantial geographical inequalities in predicted use of water and sanitation that exceed urban-rural disparities. The average range in coverage seen between admin2 within countries was 55% for improved drinking water, 54% for use of improved sanitation, and 59% for dependence upon open defecation. There was also some evidence that countries with higher levels of inequality relative to coverage in use of an improved drinking-water source also experienced higher levels of inequality in use of improved sanitation (rural populations r = 0.47, p = 0.002; urban populations r = 0.39, p = 0.01). Results are limited by the quantity of WSS data available, which varies considerably by country, and by the reliability and utility of available indicators.
This study identifies important geographic inequalities in use of WSS previously hidden within national statistics, confirming the necessity for targeted policies and metrics that reach the most marginalized populations. The presented maps and analysis approach can provide a mechanism for monitoring future reductions in inequality within countries, reflecting priorities of the post-2015 development agenda.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Access to a safe drinking-water supply (a water source that is protected from contamination) and to adequate sanitation facilities (toilets, improved latrines, and other facilities that prevent people coming into contact with human urine and feces) is essential for good health. Unimproved drinking-water sources and sanitation are responsible for 85% of deaths from diarrhea and 1% of the global burden of disease. They also increase the transmission of parasitic worms and other neglected tropical diseases. In 2000, world leaders set a target of reducing the proportion of the global population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation to half of the 1990 level by 2015 as part of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 (“Ensure environmental sustainability”; the MDGs are designed to improve the social, economic, and health conditions in the world's poorest countries). Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking-water sources and 1.8 billion gained access to improved sanitation. In 2011, 89% of the world's population had access to an improved drinking-water supply, 1% above the MDG target, and 64% had access to improved sanitation (the MDG target is 75%).
Despite these encouraging figures, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) estimates that, globally, 768 million people relied on unimproved drinking-water sources, 2.5 billion people did not use an improved sanitation facility, and more than 1 billion people (15% of the global population) were defecating in the open in 2011. The JMP estimates for 2011 also reveal national and sub-national inequalities in drinking-water supply and sanitation coverage but a better understanding of geographic inequalities is needed to track progress towards universal coverage of access to improved water and sanitation and to identify the populations that need the most help to achieve this goal. Here, the researchers use cross-sectional household survey data and modern statistical approaches to produce a comprehensive map of the coverage of improved drinking-water supply and improved sanitation at high spatial resolution for sub-Saharan Africa and to investigate geographic inequalities in coverage. Cross-sectional household surveys collect health and other information from households at a single time-point, including data on use of safe water and improved sanitation.
The researchers extracted data on reported household use of an improved drinking-water supply (for example, a piped water supply), improved sanitation facilities (for example, a flushing toilet), and open defecation from 138 national household surveys undertaken between 1991 and 2012 in 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They developed statistical models to fit these data and used the models to estimate coverage at the district (second administrative) level across sub-Saharan Africa for 2012. For ten countries, the estimated coverage of access to improved drinking water at the district level within individual countries ranged from less than 25% to more than 75%. Within-country ranges of a similar magnitude were estimated for coverage of access to improved sanitation (21 countries) and for open defecation (16 countries). Notably, rural households in the districts with the lowest coverage of access to improved water supply and sanitation within a country were 1.5–8 times less likely to access improved drinking water, 2–18 times less likely to access improved sanitation, and 2–80 times more likely to defecate in the open than rural households in districts with the best coverage. Finally, countries with high levels of inequality in improved drinking-water source coverage also experienced high levels of inequality in improved sanitation coverage.
These findings identify important geographic inequalities in the coverage of access to improved water sources and sanitation that were previously hidden within national statistics. The accuracy of these findings depends on the accuracy of the data on water supplies and sanitation provided by household surveys, on the researchers' definitions for improved water supplies and sanitation, and on their statistical methods. Nevertheless, these findings confirm that, to achieve universal coverage of access to improved drinking-water sources and sanitation, strategies that target the areas with the lowest coverage are essential. Moreover, the maps and the analytical approach presented here provide the means for monitoring future reductions in inequalities in the coverage of access to improved water sources and sanitation and thus reflect a major priority of the post-2015 development agenda.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001626.
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The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation is the official United Nations mechanism tasked with monitoring progress toward MDG7, Target 7B; the JMP 2013 update report is available online (also available in French and Spanish through the JMP website)