World Water Day: Who’s Been Left Behind?

A boy carries his brother on his back in rural Myanmar | Kyaw Kyaw Winn, Courtesy of Photoshare

Today, March 22, is World Water Day, and I can’t think of a more important natural resource to celebrate. Our adult bodies contain about 60% water, and babies are about 75% water when they’re first born! Aside from oxygen, water is the thing that will kill us quickest, if we’re deprived of it. That’s why this year’s World Water Day theme, Leaving No One Behind, is so important.

In the years since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted (in 2000), progress on expanding access to clean drinking water and sanitation has been impressive. But there are still 2.1 billion people who have been left behind (half of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa). Those people—29% of the global population—do not have safely managed drinking water.[1]

Two village girls draw water from a roadside pond in Birbhum, India. As the village lacks a proper drinking water supply, many villagers are forced to drink water from these contaminated water sources. | Somenath Mukhopadhyay, Courtesy of Photoshare

Water scarcity is especially cumbersome for girls and women, who tend to be the ones who travel—typically on foot—to collect water from wells and surface sources (rivers, lakes, streams, etc.). Leaving their villages exposes them to the threat of violence—including sexual violence—from men. The onerous burden of spending hours collecting water each day takes them away from education and employment opportunities that might otherwise exist.

Sanitation services have also improved since the year 2000. However, one in three people (2.3 billion) still lacks basic sanitation service,[2] and 892 million people practice open defecation. This practice is dangerous for girls and women in the same way that collecting water is dangerous to them—they risk rape or other violence when they venture away from their settlements to relieve themselves. Open defecation is also dangerous for entire communities, which risk water contamination and the spread of disease when waste is not treated or disposed of safely. Over 700 kids die each day from diarrhea linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

The MDGs—including the target to “halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”—had an end date of 2015. That year, they were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” by the year 2030.

Meeting this goal would be challenging enough if political will and infrastructure development were the only obstacles. But efforts to provide water and sanitation for all will also run up against the moving targets of population growth and increasing water stress due to environmental factors. Between 2015 and 2030, the global population is projected to grow by 1.17 billion people, and 97% of that growth will occur in less developed regions, where insufficient water and sanitation services are already most pressing.[3]

Developing regions are also where the environmental challenges to universal access to water and sanitation are most prevalent. Already, over 2 billion people live in countries that experience high water stress, and 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity at least one month a year. Climate change will only exacerbate this problem in the parts of the world that already withdraw more water for agriculture and household use than can be naturally replenished.

Water and sanitation are critical to people’s survival, no matter where they live. The UN even declared access to water and sanitation a human right, through a resolution in 2010.

On this World Water Day, let’s celebrate the achievements of the last two decades in bringing clean water and sanitation to millions more people across the world. And let’s also commit to continuing that progress, until everyone has access and no one risks their health, safety, or empowerment to get what is already their right.

All unsourced water statistics come from the World Water Development Report, published on March 18, 2019.

[1] Drinking water from an improved water source that is located on premises, available when needed and free from fecal and priority chemical contamination (‘improved’ sources include: piped water, boreholes or tube wells, protected dug wells, protected springs, rainwater, and packaged or delivered water)

[2] Improved facilities that are not shared with other households

[3] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, custom data acquired via website

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