Around 2 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water, a major United Nations report has found.
Several factors are to blame, says Richard Connor at the UN, the report’s lead author. Rising urban populations, expanding agriculture, a lack of waste water-treatment infrastructure and climate change all play a role, he says.
The UN World Water Development Report is being published as the UN’s first major conference on water since 1977 gets under way in New York.
It is intended as an update on progress towards ensuring that everyone in the world has access to safe drinking water by 2030 – one of the UN’s sustainable development goals adopted in 2015.
This goal is severely off track, says Connor. “Achieving universal coverage by 2030 will require a quadrupling of the current rates of progress in the provision of water and supply services.”
The report has found that the global demand for water has risen by 1 per cent each year for the past 40 years and will continue to rise at a similar rate for the next 30 years. “This growth in demand is concentrated in emerging economies and lower-income countries,” says Connor. In particular, urban water demand is projected to increase by 80 per cent by 2050.
The provision of adequate waste water-treatment infrastructure isn’t keeping up with this increase in demand, the report found. It says 80 per cent of the world’s waste water flows back into the environment without being treated or reused. Consequently, at least 2 billion people use a source of drinking water that is contaminated with faeces, which puts them at risk of contracting various diseases, such as cholera.
Climate change is likely to make it even harder to access clean water around the world, says Connor. Seasonal water scarcity will become more common in parts of the world that don’t currently experience such issues and more acute in regions where it is already a major problem, he says.
The global urban population facing water shortages is projected to increase from 933 million people in 2016 to 2.4 billion people in 2050, with India projected to be the most affected country.
The report also found that 46 per cent of the world’s population, making up 3.6 billion people, lack access to a toilet or latrine that disposes of human waste safely. Connor says the lack of access to water and sanitation around the world comes down to insufficient political will and priority-setting.
“Water tends to be seen more as a social or environmental issue and so doesn’t receive the same political attention because it’s not seen as a driver of the economy,” he says.
Connor says he hopes this year’s UN water conference will lead to the development of more realistic goals surrounding water. “Instead of going for the moon and saying that every single person on Earth should have access to all of these services, I would like to see something more realistic and make it a binding agreement that states are responsible to meet.”
“We are clearly not on track,” says Claire Seaward at WaterAid. “What is clear is that a monumental shift in ambition and approach is needed.”
“There is no magic bullet to this. What it really requires is that we all come together to strengthen the whole of the water and sanitation system,” she says.
It is unlikely that we will achieve clean water for all, even by 2050, says Greg Pierce at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Although it is already a focus, doubling down on institutional and governance reforms may yield more substantial progress than we have seen to date.”