Access to Water: Clean H20 out of Reach to More Than a Quarter of the World's Population

Drinking Water
A Filipina woman who left her home to avoid the intense fighting between the government forces and insurgents from the Maute group waits to collect drinking water from an open pipe. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

There are more than 7 billion people living on planet Earth, and well over a quarter of them lack access to safe drinking water, according to a report released Wednesday by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Not only do 2.1 billion lack access to clean water, 4.5 billion people—over half of the world's population—lack properly managed sanitation, the report found.

Related: Why did EPA chief Scott Pruitt repeal the clean water rule?

"Safe water, sanitation and hygiene at home should not be a privilege of only those who are rich or live in urban centers," says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, on the WHO website. "These are some of the most basic requirements for human health, and all countries have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can access them."

The World Health Organization defines safe drinking water as "drinking water free of contamination that is available at home when needed." Of the 2.1 billion people without access to clean water, 844 million do not have a protected drinking water source that takes less than 30 minutes to access, 263 million of whom must make trips of more than 30 minutes to retrieve water. Nearly 160 million get their drinking water from streams and lakes.

Unsafe sanitation services are defined as when excrement cannot be treated and disposed of safely. Of the 4.5 billion without safely managed sanitation, 2.3 billion do not have basic sanitation services, which are defined as having a toilet that is not shared with another household, and having handwashing facilities within the home. There are 892 million people who defecate in open areas, a problem that is worsening in sub-Saharan African and Oceania.

Lacking access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation are closely related, and the report is the first global assessment of both issues. Inadequate sanitation and water are linked to the spread of a host of diseases such as dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid. Every year, over 350,000 children under the age of 5 die due to diarrhea brought on by inadequate sanitary conditions.

"Safe water, effective sanitation and hygiene are critical to the health of every child and every community—and thus are essential to building stronger, healthier and more equitable societies," says UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. "As we improve these services in the most disadvantaged communities and for the most disadvantaged children today, we give them a fairer chance at a better tomorrow."

Both issues predominate in rural areas. Two-thirds of people with access to clean drinking water live in urban areas, and 150 million of the 161 million forced to drink water from surface sources like rivers and lakes live in rural areas. Three out of every five people with access to safely managed sanitation live in urban areas. The issues are also particularly prevalent in areas facing conflict and unrest, especially for children, where they are four times less likely to have access to clean drinking water and two times less likely to have access to safely managed sanitation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in June signed a proposed rule rescinding the Obama administration's Clean Water Rule, which clarifies the bodies of water that fall under the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollutants. According to a 2015 fact sheet that has been scrubbed from the EPA's website, the Clean Water Rule protects streams that a third of Americans depend on for their drinking water.

As Patrick Parenteau wrote this week in Newsweek, "Pruitt has not offered any compelling reason to justify killing the Clean Water Rule outright."