03/29/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

Water and Sanitation for the World: Not a Pipe Dream

Imagine if we lived in a world where everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water. It would go down as one of humanity's great achievements, as inspiring as the elimination of smallpox. It would be a significant advance in the fight against global poverty and would help the international community make further progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Unfortunately, 783 million people -- 11 percent of the global population -- still have no access to clean water. For context, that is more than two and a half times the population of the United States.

Yet this does not mean providing safe water to everyone is a pipe dream. On March 6, the World Health Organization and UNICEF announced that the MDG target to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water has been achieved five years ahead of the target.

The UN report also noted that in the last 20 years, an additional 2 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water. This is a truly remarkable achievement, but more must be done.

On March 22, World Water Day 2012, the international NGO WaterAid called on governments around the world to achieve universal access to water within a generation. This is an ambitious, yet achievable goal.

Investments in water and sanitation work. In economic terms, for every dollar invested, an $8 return is generated in reduced health costs and improved productivity. Conversely, the lack of these services costs sub-Saharan Africa around 5 percent of its annual income -- more than the continent receives in aid.

The benefits from water and sanitation for people and communities are also clear. Simply put, they have the power to transform lives for the better.

Umadevi, from the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh in India, and her fellow villagers now have a clean-water hand pump and latrines thanks to a WaterAid project. "The biggest changes are that the diseases are reduced," she said. "Before our children were not getting an education. Now their health has improved and they are going to school regularly."

Previously, for Umadevi's family and friends, water-borne diseases meant ill-health and expense -- a 10-kilometer bus journey that cost 60 rupees, 100 rupees to see the doctor and 100 rupees for medicine.

There are even harsher realities faced by those who can't afford or access help in time. More than 1 million children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation -- the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa and the second-biggest killer worldwide.

While the goal of providing access to water for everyone within the coming decades is possible to achieve, the situation with regard to sanitation is much more dire. The target for sanitation is one of the most off-track of all the MDGs. More than one-third of the global population lacks this most basic of services, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. No single government, agency, business or NGO can address this challenge alone. In April, in Washington, D.C., I will participate in the Sanitation and Water for All partnership High Level Meeting. This partnership brings together government ministers from rich and poor countries, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs in conjunction with the World Bank Spring Meetings. The aim of this group is simple: to increase access to water and sanitation for the world's poorest people.

I look forward to this meeting and working with partners from around the world to advance solutions to the global water and sanitation crisis. To succeed, governments and organisations must show leadership, ambition, political will and determination. For the first time in human history, providing universal access to water is within our grasp -- let us seize this opportunity.