Clean water for all

Water is the most basic human need, and without it no other human rights can be achieved.

Key Numbers

  • 844m: the number of people worldwide living without access to safe water
  • 1m: the number of people who die from water, hygiene and sanitation-related disease each year
  • $260bn: The amount of money lost each year due to lack of basic water and sanitation
  • 443 million: the number of school days lost each year to water-related illnesses

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognised the human right to water and sanitation. It’s incredible to think that it took until this time to consider access to water as a human right. Water is the most basic human need, and without it no other human rights can be achieved.

Most people reading this will be based in a country where accessing clean water is as easy as turning on a tap, and the idea of living without water is unimaginable. When water is this readily available it’s easy to take it for granted, but for 844 million people on earth access to clean water is currently beyond reach. To put this in perspective, it equates to 1 in every 9 people living a life where just getting a simple drink of clean water is not possible.

The effects of living without access to clean water are often fatal. A lack of water also means a lack of adequate sanitation facilities, further accelerating the spread of disease. Every year one million people die as a result of water, hygiene and sanitation-related disease. Children are amongst those most at risk, with 361,000 children under the age of five years old dying from diarrhea every year. Water-related illnesses also result in the loss of 443 million school days annually.

Progress is being made, but there is further to go

The problem is even more pronounced in countries where there is conflict. At present, around 180 million people are without access to clean water due to conflicts, and forced migration can lead to humanitarian disasters when clean water is not available.

From an economic standpoint, the estimated financial cost attributed to a lack of rudimentary water and sanitation provision is a staggering $260 billion per year. This takes into account factors such as loss of productivity and the burden on healthcare as well the the impact on families. From all sides, the water crisis an economic and health crisis that we we are globally responsible for.

There has been good progress made on bringing clean water to the world. In 2000, the United Nations made halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015 one of the Millennium Development Goals. This goal was met, and between 1990 and 2015 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources.

Following on from the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations introduced the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Goal 6 of the SDGs is to ‘ensure access to water and sanitation for all’. We need to now find a way to bring clean water to the remaining parts of the world still living without it, especially those in rural areas who are most affected.

Water scarcity impacts 40% of the world population

In the future the problem is going to be exacerbated. Water scarcity currently impacts around 40% of the world, and the global population keeps on growing. By 2030 there will be an estimated 8.5 billion on earth, and many of these people will be living in areas where water is either scarce or contaminated. The issue isn’t a lack of water on earth, but rather that it’s not always located in the areas where it is most needed. There is enough water on earth for all of humanity, but places such as northern Africa and the Middle East don’t have access to it.

There are a number of solutions to the problem of water provision. One is desalination, essentially removing the salt content from seawater and making it safe for consumption. The cost of setting up desalination plants and services is prohibitively expensive and uses a lot of energy, thereby putting it out of reach for many countries affected by water scarcity. A major hope for the future resides in nanotechnology. Nano-osmosis uses tiny nanotubes of carbon to effectively filter out salt and make desalination less energy intensive and cheaper.

For rural locations and areas with poor infrastructure, a good strategy may be to use small decentralized distillation units that can service smaller numbers of people. For example, the OffGridBox can supply enough clean water and energy for a village of 300 people.. This solution is especially useful for areas which suffer from water distribution problems. In many countries there is inequity in water access — the rich may be able to quickly and cheaply access clean water, whereas those with less money are forced to travel distances to collect water and to use sources that are unclean. Cost-effective, decentralised distillation may be a key step along the path to clean water for all.

The direction of the trend is continuously moving towards ensuring everyone on earth has access to water and sanitation, but until this goal is reached there is still work to be done.

Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations

This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.