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Although the world is on track to meet the goal of halving the proportion of people without access to safe water, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned today that hundreds of millions worldwide still live with an absence of clean water, perpetuating poverty.

Water, he stressed, “is not only a basic necessity, it is a human right.”

Since 1990, some 1.7 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water, which means the world will likely meet the target set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Four regions – Northern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia – have already met the target. However, nearly 900 million still do not have access to clean water.

With 2.6 billion people not having access to basic sanitation services such as toilets, the sanitation target is likely to be missed. If the current trend continues, the number is expected to climb to 2.7 billion by 2015.

“Living in these conditions increases the likelihood of disease and death,” Mr. Ban told participants at an event held at UN Headquarters called “Addressing the Global Water and Sanitation Challenge: The Key to the MDGs.”

He urged drastic changes in public health policies and sanitation infrastructure.

Gender considerations must remain a priority, the Secretary-General underlined, with women, as primary care-givers, often spending hours to secure water.

“Access to clean water and sanitation will free up time and enable mothers to provide their children with a healthy start in life,” he said, adding that girls are also more likely to attend school where there are proper sanitation facilities.

The UN has endeavoured to spotlight the issue through its “Water for Life” decade launched in 2005.

“Let us build an unstoppable tide for progress,” Mr. Ban said at today's event, which was held on the margins of the high-level UN summit to review progress on the MDGs.