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Water: key facts and resources


A collection of facts, organisations, reports and further resources about access to water from a global perspective. 

Key facts

Inequality in access to water

There is more waste water generated and dispersed today than at any other time in the history of our planet.

Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.[1]

Of the 1.8 billion people who can access water within one kilometre but not within their home, on average 20 litres of water is consumed a day, compared with 600 litres consumed by the average US citizen.

A mere 12 percent of the world's population, all of whom live in the industrialised countries, use up 85 percent of its water.[2]

In many of the poorest countries only 25% of the poorest households have access to piped water in their homes, compared with 85% of the richest.[3]

The poorest households pay as much as 10 times more for water as wealthy households.[4]

"Most of the 1.1 billion people categorized as lacking access to clean water use about 5 litres a day - one tenth of the average daily amount used in rich countries to flush toilets. On average, people in Europe use more than 200 litres - in the United States more than 400 litres. When a European person flushes a toilet or an American person showers, he or she is using more water than is available to hundreds of millions of individuals living in urban slums or arid areas of the developing world. Dripping taps in rich countries lose more water than is available each day to more than 1 billion people."[5]

Poverty and disease

Almost two in three people lacking access to clean water survive on less than $2 a day, with one in three living on less than $1 a day. More than 660 million people without sanitation live on less than $2 a day, and more than 385 million on less than $1 a day.[6]

 (Water) coverage rates are lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, but most people without clean water live in Asia.[7]

400 million children (1 in 5 from the developing world) have no access to safe water. 1.4 million children will die each year from lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.[8]

Seven hundred fifteen million people in Asia have no access to safe drinking water, while 1.9 billion or 80 percent of the population has no access to sanitation.[9]

Health consequences

2.1 million children die every year from diarrhoea, most of them under 5.[10] This is one in five of all child deaths under the age of five and means a child dies every 15 seconds from water-related diseases.[11]

Dirty water and poor sanitation account for the vast majority of the 1.8 million child deaths each year from diarrhoea - almost 5,000 every day - making it the second largest cause of child mortality.[12]

Water scarcity

"With population rising and demands on the world's water expanding, so the argument runs, the future points to a "gloomy arithmetic" of shortage. We reject this starting point. The availability of water is a concern for some countries. But the scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability."[13]

Privatisation vs sharing

Maude Barlow, a key figure in the struggle for global water rights, argues extensively against the view of water as a commodity, instead calling for a humanitarian system of ‘water sharing' - distinct from the purely economic concerns for short-term profit - as opposed to ‘water trading' through privatisation.[14]

Sub-Saharan Africa got just 0.001% of international private sector water investments between 1990 and 1997. By contrast the local private sector may have constructed nearly 90% of water points.[15]

Shared water is an increasingly important part of human geography and the political landscape. International rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands bind people separated by international borders, some of which follow the course of waterways. This shared water is what supports the hydrological interdependence of millions of people.[16]

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

There is now no chance that the millennium development goal of halving the proportion of people without access to clean water by 2015 will be met. At this rate of progress, says the World Water Council, "access to clean water cannot be guaranteed until beyond 2050 in Africa, 2025 in Asia and 2040 in Latin America and the Caribbean".[17]

According to Water Aid, there is a genuine risk that all of the human development related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met if international donors continue to pursue single issue ‘global causes' instead of building an aid system that will respond to the complex needs of poor communities.[18]

In order to reach the Millennium Development target for water (of halving the proportion of people without safe water and adequate sanitation by 2015), 280,000 people need to gain access to safe water every single day. This requires a 25% increase on performance since 1990.[19]

In order to reach the Millennium Development targets overall, 384,000 people need to gain access to sanitation every single day -  a 90% increase on performance since 1990.[20]

Even if the Millennium Development target on water is achieved, there will still be more than 800 million people without water and 1.8 billion people without sanitation in 2015.[21]

Achieving the Millennium Development Goal for water and sanitation at even the most basic level of provision would save more than 1 million lives in the next decade; universal provision would raise the number of lives saved to 2 million.[22]

Policy implications

"The 1.8 million child deaths each year related to unclean water and poor sanitation dwarf the casualties associated with violent conflict. No act of terrorism generates economic devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation. Yet the issue barely registers on the international agenda."[23]

"The social minimum: All citizens should have access to resources sufficient to meet their basic needs and live a dignified life. Clean water is part of the social minimum, with 20 litres per person each day as the minimum threshold requirement... and a minimum target for governments."[24]

Annual spending on water and sanitation needs to double, from around $14 billion to $30 billion.[25]

This means there is a financing gap of $16 billion a year. This amount is the equivalent to 15% of Europe's annual alcohol bill or only 0.002% of the world's $1 trillion yearly military expenditures.[26]

Less than 40% of aid for water goes to the 30 countries where nearly 90% of the 1.1 billion people without access to safe water live.[27]

The total debt of 52 indebted poor countries is $375 billion.[28] Poor countries spend less than 0.25% of their income on water supply and sanitation.[29]

Future prospects

Today, about 700 million people in 43 countries live below the water-stress threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per person-an admittedly arbitrary dividing line. By 2025 that figure will reach 3 billion, as water stress intensifies in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa.[30]

Water insecurity linked to climate change threatens to increase malnutrition by 75-125 million people by 2080, with staple food production in many Sub-Saharan African countries falling by more than 25%.[31

Further resources



Reports and articles



[1] Estimation for 2002, by the WHO/UNICEF JMP, 2004. <http://www.who.int/entity/water_sanitation_health/monitoring/jmp2005/en/index.html>

[2] Maude Barlow. ‘Water as Commodity-The Wrong Prescription' (The Institute for Food and Development Policy, Backgrounder, Summer 2001, Vol. 7, No. 3) <http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/2001/s01v7n3.html>

[3] Kevin Watkins. ‘The 2006 Human Development Report: Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis' (United Nations Development Programme, 2006) <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/> p 20.

[4] Ibid, p 20.

[5] Ibid, p 5-6.

[6] Ibid, p 7.

[7] Ibid, p 5.

[8] ‘Children Under Threat: The State of the World's Children, 2005' (UNICEF, December 2005) <http://www.unicef.org/sowc05/english/index.html>

[9] ‘Water Democracy: Reclaiming Public Water in Asia' (Focus on the Global South & Transnational Institute, November 2007) <http://www.waterjustice.org/uploads/attachments/waterdemocracyasia.pdf>  

[10] The World Health Report 1999 - Making a Difference (WHO 1999)

[11] Hutton G. & Haller L. ‘The Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level' (WHO 2004)

[12] Kevin Watkins, HDR 2006, ibid, p 23. <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/>

[13] Kevin Watkins. HDR 2006, ibid, p 2.

[14] Maude Barlow. ‘Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply' (The New Press, revised edition spring 2001), p 69 <http://www.blueplanetproject.net/documents/BlueGold_revised_01.pdf>

[15] Silva G, Tynan N, Yilmaz Y. (1998) ‘Private Participation in the Water and Sewerage Sector - Recent Trends Public Policy for the Private Sector. Note no. 147, August 1998 The World Bank Group 

[16] Kevin Watkins. HDR 2006, ibid, p 24. <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/>

[17] John Vidal. ‘Thirst for Justice' (The Guardian UK, 15th March 2006) 

[18] ‘Global cause' and effect: How the aid system is undermining the Millennium Development Goals (Water Aid report, June 2007) <http://www.wateraid.org/documents/plugin_documents/global_cause_and_effect__mdg_midway_paper.pdf>

[19] David Redhouse. ‘Getting to boiling point: Turning up the heat on water and sanitation' (Water Aid, March 2005) p. 7. <http://www.wateraid.org/documents/plugin_documents/getting_to_boiling_point_1web.pdf>

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kevin Watkins. ‘The 2006 Human Development Report: Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis' (United Nations Development Programme, 2006) <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/> p 4.

[22] Ibid, p 23.

[23] Ibid, p 3.

[24] Ibid, p 3.

[25] Framework For Action (Global Water Partnership 2000)

[26] David Redhouse, ibid, p. 7.

[27] Ibid.

[28] "Facts & figures" at War on Want (accessed February 2008) <http://www.waronwant.org/Drop%20the%20Debt+9823.twl>

[29] ‘Water Supply and Sanitation and the Millennium Development Goals', addendum 3 to ‘Progress Report and Critical Next Steps in Scaling Up: Education for All, Health, HIV/AIDS, Water and Sanitation' (World Bank March 2003) 

[30] Kevin Watkins. HDR 2006, ibid, p 14. <http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/>

[31] Ibid, p 24.

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