What data is collected in poor countries?

One problem every developing country shares is a lack of information about their population. How many people live in the country, where are they, what do they do for a living, where do they go to school, how healthy are they?

In rich countries this information is largely collected by service providers and automated systems – your employer knows your national insurance number and reports your earnings to the taxman; your doctor records that you visited and what was discussed. Your children are enrolled in a school and their exam results are compiled with all other children and available nationally. We know who has water through the records of water companies.

The systems to collect, store and use this information are expensive – they require hardware (ICT), skilled professionals, and large amounts of manpower inputting and administrating the information, and they only work for national data because very nearly everybody has access to, and uses, the state apparatus.

In lieu of this wealth of information, poorer countries take a more direct approach – the household survey. These involve a team of trained people going to randomly selected households and asking the people who live there a long series of questions about their lives.

These are blunter instruments than the above data – they can rarely be disaggregated beyond quite large areas, and they are time consuming, so can only cover the really essential items. They also may undercount the urban poor, either because the questioners avoid spending time in slums or because some of the people do not have ‘households’ that can be identified because they sleep on the street or at work. But they do produce nationally representative results and give a lot of useful information.

One of the most important advantages to this method is that they count people who are not using official services, and they tell us what those people actually do instead. In Africa, the WHO/Unicef JMP estimates that only 16 percent of people have piped water into their homes; if we only looked at data from piped water suppliers, as is the norm in the UK or USA, we would only have information on a sixth of the population, probably nearly all the most wealthy urban dwellers.

Many surveys, such as DHS and MICS, are funded by donors (USAID and UNICEF respectively) and are publicly available. Search for your country and DHS or MICS in Google, and you may find some valuable information about the lives of people in your country. You could use these surveys to see how access to WASH is progressing regionally, or by gender. If your government has promised to target the areas of greatest marginalisation, and share this information on WASHwatch under the box for Water Policy - Are there specific measures in the plan for targeting poor people, and addressing the interests of women?


By :

Tim Brewer


Why do we use JMP estimates on WASHwatch?

If you look at the bottom of any country page in WASHwatch, you’ll see two numbers, giving the percentage of the population of that country who have access to water and the percentage who have basic sanitation.

These numbers have recently been updated (we will be updating the site shortly – watch this space!). And this has led to much discussion about the merits of these estimates. Ian Ross has a very thorough blog-post arguing the merits of the JMP estimation method.

I’ll not rehearse his arguments here, and I don’t disagree with what he says, but I’ll expand on two key questions I think his post has raised.

The main criticisms of global estimates are

1) that they are useless – you can’t make WASH investment or policy decisions in Uganda based on JMP estimates*

2) that they are extractive – they require costly data collection but are of no value to the people who provide the data

These are both valid points, but they are not unanswerable.

Do we need global numbers?

The point of JMP estimates is to be able to compare levels and trends between countries; if that is not desirable, the details of the method are immaterial – we should just stick with country level information.

WASHwatch.org is based on the premise that inter-country comparison is of enormous value. That highlighting where a country is performing poorly compared to its neighbour can spur that government to greater action.  That identifying the countries and regions of greatest need can allow international aid to be well targeted, and help campaigners to know whether it actually is.

Whether donors choose to use the data to best effect is a secondary question – we can’t know if they are off target, or demand that they do better, if the comparable data on need do not exist.

The usefulness of the data is only a problem if you are looking at global estimates as a service provision tool, akin to Water Point Mapping or Utility data. But this is not their purpose – these data are political. They tell us (comparably!) where the need is high, and where changes have been slow to materialise.

They also provide a benchmark. If there is a wide difference between a recent survey and the JMP estimates, this provokes a question – has a recent government initiative had a massive impact? Has a terrible disaster destroyed a lot of services? The difference from the normal is thrown into relief and invites a closer look.

So yes! We need these numbers.

Can we afford these numbers?

One of the most important features of the JMP estimates is that they are incredibly cheap – all the data on which they are based is already being collected, for national purposes. All that has to be done is to ensure that wherever a survey looks at water and sanitation it includes a few basic, comparable questions, and to collect all the surveys that have ever been taken and extract the relevant data.

This is not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than going annually to every country in the world and observing every water connection. This is a good example of ‘aggregating up’ to form global estimates, rather than modelling global estimates and then generalising down to country level.  For a reasonable, methodologically transparent and consistent estimate of global WASH poverty, the JMP data is an absolute bargain!**

As Ian and others commenting have pointed out, we need different data for different purposes, and we must cross-reference and triangulate as much as possible to ensure reliability, precision, and to draw the most effective policy conclusions. But throwing out a cheap and politically useful piece of global analysis because it doesn’t do everything we like, would be a terrible folly.


* This seems to be the crux of the objections around functionality – the surveys do measure functionality in the sense that the source currently being used must be functional, but they don’t account for whether the same source will still function in six months.

**  It is worth noting that the only affordable way for JMP to provide more credible estimates that take functionality, quality, proximity and all the other facets of access into account is for these data to be collected at national level. They are advocating for this in the post-MDG monitoring proposals, but they cannot be expected to collate and analyse data that no-one is yet collecting, and to collect it themselves would be exactly the kind of  eye-wateringly expensive and extractive study we want to avoid.


East Africa CSO Forum

IMG_6060Today was day one of the (first?) East Africa CSO forum, which will continue until Friday, with sharing of experience from colleagues in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Sudan, plus non-east African interlopers from Malawi, Ghana, Switzerland and the UK.

A huge amount of ground was covered, shedding real light on some of the challenges facing advocates for water, sanitation and hygiene in the region. Some highlights (lowlights?) including buck-passing between government and donors for responsibility for commitments that have been made, lack of political space for civil society, and the ever present problem of poor data and opaque government processes, one area where hopefully WASHwatch can add some value.

Tomorrow I will be discussing the possibilities for open data to help these sector experts make the most of their breadth of experience and diverse experience.


In day 2 of the East Africa CSO WASH forum we had the opportunity to present the WASHwatch platform to all the delegates, and discuss how it might be used in different contexts.

This produced some great ideas for using the information and updating it in Rwanda and Uganda, as well as taking the opportunity for members of our community to raise challenges and concerns. One concern is the question of how  the WASHwatch data is validated.

The analysis presented in WASHwatch is not independently validated, the ongoing discussion between civil society and government will keep improving the quality of data. The best way for CSOs to validate? Take the analysis to the minister, bring it to the attention of the Ministry of Finance, and see if they agree. If so, share this with the world by updating the site or the blog!

If the ministries disagree, this is a fantastic opportunity to demand that the government provide their own analysis, and supporting information, helping to open up the crucial information we need to hold people to account.

This discussion brought out the idea of having a ‘disclaimer’ on the front page, which is an idea we will follow up on in the next few weeks. We are clear what WASHwatch is, but we should also be clear what WASHwatch is NOT.

Disclaimer: WASHwatch.org is NOT the last word – it is always a work in progress.

This platform allows us to share our best analysis, based on the information we have available, and to have a structured, open space to discuss and improved it. It does not claim to be perfect, and if you spot errors, or have information that has not been taken into account, please do not hesitate to share it to improve the analysis – either register and leave a comment, or email [email protected]


WASH in the Sindh Province of Pakistan

Sindh Irrigation ReformsThe following was sent to us by an anonymous WASHwatch contributor illustrating some challenges faced when measuring and monitoring WASH progress. Do you agree? Have you experienced similar discrepancies between reported and actual coverage? Join the conversation!

“In rural households, it is the responsibility of women and girls to fetch water. Water is available at distant sources (typically, 4 to 6 km away from homes). The quality of water, meant for drinking, is poor and unsafe.

Rural water supply systems have not been properly developed in Sindh, technically. The water treatment works do not conform to the sound principles of water engineering. Waterborne diseases are rampant in the rural Sindh. About 40 per cent of beds in hospitals are occupied by patients suffering from waterborne diseases, mostly in rural areas (WWF, 2007).

Hygiene principles go hand in hand with the water supply, if the full benefits of water supply are to be accrued. Adoption of hygiene principles (principally, the hand-washing) are absent. Women consider the feces of the infants as harmless.

Erroneous Coverage Reporting

Significant errors occur in reporting the rural water supply coverage. Based on the extensive experience of the writer in rural water supply, the rural water supply coverage in Sindh would be around 10 per cent, currently. As against this, the figures reported in international circles are as high as 90 per cent. Detailed insight revealed how and why this happens.

Rural water supply projects, when submitted to the government for approval, require filling a proforma that asks about the number of people that will be benefited from the project. Water consumption per capita per day is shown on a lower side, and this increase the size of the population benefited, way beyond the reasonable figure. For example, water demand is taken as 5 liters/day per capita; thus a water treatment plant of 4,000 cubic meters per day will serve 0.8 million people, which is an incorrect estimation.

The incorrect and out-of-proportion population figures are transmitted to federal government, which in turn, are forwarded to the international agencies, giving incorrect population figures of rural population that have access to water supply facilities. In practice, not even one-quarter of population, reported by the federal government, have access to safe water. As can be seen from Table 1, the water coverage in rural areas varies from 10 to 90 per cent.

Table 1 Rural water coverage in Pakistan from Various Sources


% Rural water coverage in Pakistan and Source


10                     Sindh’s Development: Issues & Agenda, World Bank (year?)

13                     Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLM),

90                     WASH Strategy, NDMA, PK Gov (overall percentage)

87                     ADB Asia Water Watch 2015 (figures for 2002)

65                      Sadia Jabeen, et al., 2011; (total coverage)

88                     JMP (updated March 2012)

10                     Writer’s estimate, 2013


Pakistan government’s household survey report (2004) shows that access to “improved” water in Pakistan increased from 83 per cent in 1990 to 91 per cent in 2004, while “improved” sanitation coverage increased from 37 per cent to 59 per cent during the same period.  The water coverage figures are incorrect and are on a very higher side. Table 2 shows these figures, while Table 3 gives the similar coverage for a number of years. Both the Tables show high percentage of population coverage.

Table 2 Access to water and Sanitation in Pakistan (2004)

Urban %* Rural %* Total
Water Overall 96 89 91
House Connections 49 15 27
Sanitation Overall 92 41 59
Sewage System 40 6 18

*34% of the total population

**66% of the total population

Source: Pakistan Household Survey, 2004

Table 3 Population with Access to Improved Water and Sanitation – Pakistan, %

Rural Urban  Total
1990 1995 2000 2006 1990 1995 2006 2006 1990 1995 2006 2006
Water 81 83 85 87 96 96 95 95 86 87 88 90
Sanitation 14 22 30 40 76 80 85 90 33 40 48 58

Source: Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific, 2008, UNESCAP, Bangkok

The sanitation coverage percentage in rural Sindh is very low (10 per cent). Water treatment and sewage treatment is poor. According to this writer, poor treatment = no treatment. This contention will again impact the WASH coverage.


Early Recovery Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Strategy, Dec 2010, National Disaster Management Authority, Government of Pakistan, Prime Minister’s Secretariat, Islamabad.

Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLM), 2010-11, Stat. Div, Govt. of Pakistan, Islamabad

Pakistan’s Waters at Risk, Water and Health Related Issues in Pakistan and Key Recommendations, WWF, 2007, Lahore, Pakistan

Sadia Jabeen, et al. (2011), Health Impact Caused by Poor Water and Sanitation in Dist. Abbottabad, J Ayub Medical College, Abbottabad 2011, 23(1).

Sindh’s Development: Issues & Agenda, The World Bank, year(?) siteresources.worldbank.org/PAKISTANEXTN/Resources/…/Sindh.p…”

-Anonymous Contributor