Nature and Biodiversity

Everything you need to know about water

A water tap is seen in an old district in Shanghai March 20, 2008. Well aware of its shoddy environmental image, China has declared cleaner water as one of its major policy goals and it has thrown open the doors to foreign firms eager to grab a piece of the fast-growing $14.2 billion market. Picture taken March 20, 2008.   To match feature CHINA-WATER/  REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA)

In developing countries, 20 litres of water is enough to meet basic drinking, cooking and hand washing needs. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Johnny Wood
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Fresh Water

Water is one of the most valuable resources on Earth. It covers over two thirds of the planet’s surface, makes up around 70% of the human body and is essential for life. For many people a consistent supply of clean, safe water is on tap. But for many others life is not so easy.

Experts, decision-makers and innovators work together during World Water Week to foster new thinking and find solutions to some of the most pressing water-related challenges.

Here are some of the key issues they are facing.

Access to safe drinking water

One in every nine people on planet Earth - that is about 663 million people - does not have access to safe drinking water.

129 million people still depend on surface water
Global access to safe drinking water Image: WHO / Unicef

Unicef data for 2015 shows 71% (5.1 billion) of people had access to a safely managed water supply. This is defined as water from an improved source located on the premises, available when needed and free from contamination.

A further 17% (1.3 billion) rely on a basic water service, defined as having access to an improved water source within a round-trip of 30 minutes.

But many others have limited or no access to safe water, with 2% (129 million) of people depending on surface water.

In most countries with no access to safely managed drinking water the daily water collection is performed by women and girls. According to a United Nations report, African and Asian females walk on average 6km each day carrying up to 20kgs. An estimated 125 million physically demanding hours are spent each day collecting water, which could be otherwise spent in work or education.

The amount of water being used

In developing countries, 20 litres of water is enough to meet basic drinking, cooking and hand washing needs, a report authored by the World Health Organization says.

The same volume of water, 20 litres, is the minimum amount used during a one minute shower under a conventional shower head. Put another way, the average person uses more water during a 1 minute shower than most sub-Saharan Africans use in a day.

Consumption patterns are often linked to the costs of water, which differ dramatically between countries and regions.

The cost of buying water

While people in developed economies pay a comparatively small proportion of their income for water to be piped into their homes, those living in poorer countries spend considerably more.

The cost and proportion of income to buy 50 liters of water
Image: Statista via WaterAid report

Data from WaterAid shows that 60% of Papua New Guinea’s population doesn’t have access to safe water, the highest rate of any country. In 2016, 50 litres of delivered water cost $2.61, equivalent to 54% of a typical daily wage for a low-income worker.

This compares with the United Kingdom where the whole population has access to piped water and the same 50 litre volume costs just $0.10 or 0.1% of a typical low-income daily wage.

Aside from the financial costs of buying safe water, there are also many health costs associated with drinking unsafe water and water-related diseases are a major cause of child mortality. Each day, nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diseases, according to the UNDP.

The progress so far

Despite the huge challenges that remain, significant progress has been made: 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990.

Access to clean water and sanitation is the sixth of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs set out an ambitious set of targets that will guide policy and funding across more than 170 nations until 2030.

Have you read?

The goals include achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for everyone by 2030, as well as substantially increasing water-use efficiency and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems.

The policies and ideas being discussed at World Water Week is one important step in reaching these targets.

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