LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly 750 million people, mostly poor and living in rural areas, still do not have access to safer drinking water, despite huge improvements over the past two decades, the United Nations said.
More than 2 billion people gained access to improved water supplies between 1990 and 2012, while almost 2 billion gained access to improved sanitation over the same period, according to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
However, 748 million people - about half of them in sub-Saharan Africa and half in Asia - still do not have access to an improved drinking water source. More than one third of the global population, some 2.5 billion people, still do not have access to a basic toilet and 1 billion people still practise "open defecation", the report said.
Access to better drinking water and sanitation are seen as crucial in the fight against killer diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid.
WHO and UNICEF said sharp inequalities in access to improved drinking water and sanitation persist around the world.
"Progress on rural sanitation – where it has occurred – has primarily benefitted richer people, increasing inequalities," said Maria Neira, WHO's director for public health, said in a statement.
The report said 56 countries had met an internationally agreed goal - a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) - to halve by 2015 the proportion of the population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
Seventy-seven countries have met the MDG sanitation target and 116 countries have met the MDG drinking water target.
Most of the 45 countries expected to miss the MDG target for safe drinking water are in sub-Saharan Africa, which also has the lowest levels of improved sanitation with South Asia.
If current trends continue, there will still be 2.4 billion people without access to an improved sanitation facility in 2015, falling short of the MDG sanitation target by over half a billion people, the report said.
The United Nations has already started drafting its post-2015 development agenda for water and sanitation.
"The question now is, what will the new targets be? There is a growing consensus that (they) should focus on universal access (to safe water and sanitation) as a part of the push to end extreme poverty by 2030," WaterAid's deputy head of policy, Tom Slaymaker, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The only way in which we are going to get there is by having a very serious commitment and focus on reducing inequalities."