Nature and Biodiversity

How close are we to clean water for all?

Mark Jones
Head of Digital Content, The World Economic Forum
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This is part of a series on the Millennium Development Goals. In the run-up to a UN summit in New York on 25 September, we look at how the world has changed over the past quarter of a century through the prism of the original development goals.

The seventh Millennium Development Goal is to “ensure environmental sustainability” – a broad objective that includes deforestation, CO2 emissions, repair of the ozone layer, marine conservation, slum living and (our focus here) water and sanitation.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015. 

The good news is that the drinking-water target has been hit (five years ahead of schedule, in 2010). Between 1990 (the baseline for MDG targets) and 2015, the proportion of the global population using an improved drinking-water source increased from 76% to 91%.


Since 1990, the proportion of the population without access to improved drinking water has been halved in eastern Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, South-East Asia, southern Asia and western Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region that fell short of the target but still managed a 20 percentage-point improvement. However, an estimated 663 million people still use unimproved drinking-water sources, half of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The news is not so good on sanitation. Between 1990 and 2015, Caucasus and central Asia, eastern Asia, northern Africa and western Asia all cut in half the proportion of the population without access to improved sanitation. Southern Asia was the worst-performing region in 1990, with just 22% benefiting from improved sanitation. But it has shown the biggest increase, reaching 47% in 2015.

Overall, the proportion of the global population with improved sanitation has risen from 54% to 68%. But the MDG target was for 77% and 2.4 billion people are still using unimproved sanitation facilities.

In national terms, 147 countries have met the drinking-water target, 95 countries have met the sanitation target, and just 77 countries have met both, illustrating just how far there is to go before there is clean water for all.

Have you read?
Water crises are a top global risk
Can graphene make the world’s water clean?
7 ways water is vital for sustainability

Author: Mark Jones is Commissioning Editor for the World Economic Forum

Image: Slum dwellers carry drinking water containers which they filled from a water tanker provided by the state-run Delhi Jal (water) Board on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherje

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