How accessible is safe drinking water in developing countries?

Don’t we just love the long summer days! It is hot and sunny outside, so we like to wallow in our swimming pools. We play tennis or go jogging or cycling till sweat comes dripping from our noses. Who cares! We can all enjoy our hot or cold shower five times a day, can’t we? In the evening, we have barbecues on our perfectly maintained and manicured lawns, which we will always keep lush and green, no matter how dry the season. We can always wash our cars, sprinkle our tennis courts and water our golf courses — and we never need to wonder where our next glass of pure and safe drinking water will be coming from.

In the developed world, the above-described picture is the norm. Of course, there are shortages and during a prolonged drought, our lawns might suffer a little bit, but that is about as bad as it gets. Almost all people have a fully functional water system installed into their houses, there is drinking water available in every pub, store, fitness gym, and public toilet. But this is definitely not the case everywhere in the world. We need to understand that ready-available safe drinking water, which we take for granted, is a precious commodity in much of the developed world.

There is also a great discrepancy between accessibility to safe drinking water in rural and urban areas

Admittedly, the drinking water situation around the world has much improved in the last few decades. The number of people who have a fully functional water system on the premises and have access to safe water has increased tremendously and the number of people who still have to rely on surface water sources, such as rivers, ponds, and lakes, has decreased sharply. However, there are still a staggering 663 million people around the world — that is one in ten — who drink water from unimproved and unprotected sources. More than half of those live in Sub Saharan Africa.

“We never need to wonder where our next glass of pure and safe drinking water will be coming from

The proportion of the population with access to improved drinking water source differs wildly from country to country. While in some Sub Saharan countries like Malawi, The Gabon or Ghana, the proportion of people with a fully functional water system within their homes is around 90% or more, in other countries like Mozambique or The Democratic Republic of Congo, it is just over 50%. There is also a great discrepancy between accessibility to safe drinking water in rural and urban areas. While in urban areas, households mostly have a fully functional water system installed, in many urban areas, the access to an improved water source is often very limited and for millions of people it still means a round trip of over 30 minutes to collect water from a drinking water source that is questionable at best.

Access to an improved drinking water source depends mostly on the GDP of a country, which means the richer the country is, the better the water system. However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. A very notable example is Malawi, which has a very low GDP and also HDI factor, but a very big share of its population has access to a fully functional water system, both in rural as well as urban areas. Uganda is a similar case. They have made tremendous progress in the last 20 years and have gone from 40% coverage to 80% coverage. Kenya, on the other hand, has a higher GDP as well as HDI than both aforementioned countries, but their water situation in urban centers has actually gotten worse over the last two decades, from 91.7% to 81.6% in 2015, but has improved in rural areas, from 33% accessibility to 56.8% in 2015.

“Only two cities in the whole of India could enable continuous water supply to its residents

All the data mentioned come from sources like the World Bank and the WHO. They all speak of increased access to an improved water source or “basic water” as it is sometimes referred to. What is an improved water source? According to the definition of the World Bank, an improved source of drinking water includes “piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection)”. Having access to an improved source of drinking water does not, however, mean that the water is completely safe and that it has not been contaminated by human excreta.

But the Devil is always to be found in the details, isn’t he? In many countries, where tremendous progress has been made in recent decades to bring improved water sources into or close to the houses of the residents, the residents very often have to face an improved water source in their very kitchen without — wait for it! — improved or any other kind of water coming out of it for most hours of the day.

“An improved source of drinking water includes “piped water on premises, and other improved drinking water sources

India is a well-studied example. According to the ourworldindata.org website, the share of rural as well as an urban population with access to an improved water source has risen from 70% in 1990 to 94% in 2015. The rise has been sharpest in rural areas, from 64.2% to 92.6% of the rural areas having access to an improved drinking water source. In urban areas, the rise was from 88% to 97%. However, according to Wikipedia, only two cities in the whole of India could enable continuous water supply to its residents, meaning 24/7. In other cities, the water was supplied only for a few hours every day. In Delhi, for instance, the residents receive water to their improved water source only for a few hours every day because of mismanagement of the distribution system. The residents have to pay prohibitive costs to alleviate the problems caused by this and the hardest hit are, as usual, the poorest people. The situation is feared to be similar in many other countries of the developing world.

Water, or Blue Gold as it is often referred to, is a human right, a precious commodity, and a great investment. It should be accessible to all people around the world, period. Therefore, we need to invest in it, take care of it and treat it as if it were the most important substance on the planet. Otherwise, we might all be facing continuous shortages not too far in the future, no matter how very ‘developed’ we think our nation is.

“Safe drinking water, which we take for granted, is a precious commodity in much of the developed world

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