2 Billion people in the world still do not have access to clean drinking water, with most of these living in Sub-Sharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia, according to a recent State of the World’s Water Report issued by the World Health Organisation (1)
The proportions of people with access to contamination free drinking water varies considerably by region: in Europe and North America 98% of the population have access, but in Sub-Saharan Africa only 36% of people have access to clean drinking water.
Access to safe water supplies is Millennium Development Goal number 6, and we have made progress in the last 2 decades, with the proportion of the global population with access to safely managed water rising from 62% in the year 2000 to 74% by 2020.
However, progress is stalling, and the United Nations realises that we probably NOT going to reach the goal of achieving safe and affordable access to clean drinking water for EVERYBODY by 2030, in fact by 2030 they predict that 1.6 billion people will lack access to clean water, and higher numbers will lack access to decent hygiene facilities.
Why this matters for development
Drinking dirty water is one of the main reasons people get ill, which directly reduces life expectancy, but also the capacity for children to school and get an education or adults to go to work.
There is also a dimension to this. In situations, usually rural areas, where there is no clean, piped water to towns or villages and people have to walk miles to fetch water, it is usually women who do the fetching, in up to 90% of cases in some parts of rural India.
This improving water supplies would improve health, education, work prospects and gender equality.
Why do people lack access to clean drinking water?
Climate change seems to be the main culprit, and there are different reasons for lack of access in different parts of the world. In Subsaharan African the main reason is persistent drought: there simply isn’t enough clean water year-round for the populations in some areas.
in other parts of Africa and places like Bangladesh, water supplies have been ruined and polluted by widespread flooding, which mixes various waste products with what used to be clean water.
The report also points to lack of basic national and regional level organisation in failing to provide widespread access to clean water.
in the worst affected countries such as Malawi there is neither government nor private ownership of water supplies. In such countries local communities are left to fend for themselves to sort out their own water, which may mean digging down into river beds and relying on muddy, contaminated water for drinking, unless they are lucky enough to work with NGOs which may help them sort out a bore hole.
The report is keen to stress that IF we want to sort out clean water for 2 billion people by anytime near 2030 it is up to governments to work with the private sector to set up large scale infrastructure development and regulation to ensure that all people have access.
To my mind, this seems like a sensible priority: for a relatively small investment you are giving people access to what really is the most basic of human needs which can have knock on benefits for health, education, employment and gender equality.
(1) The World Health Organisation and UNICEF (2022) State of the World’s Drinking Water.
The Conversation (April 2023) Billions Still Lack Access to Safe Drinking Water.