The Water and Sanitation Crisis


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Over 1.1 billion individuals lack access to a basic supply of water from a clean source likely to be safe and over 2.6 billion persons lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, a primary cause of water contamination and diseases linked to water. As these figures do not take into account a number of obstacles such as the inability to pay for access, the true figure for lack of access is much higher.

There is sufficient clean freshwater in the world for everyone’s essential personal and domestic needs. However, lack of distribution networks and working systems to extract groundwater or harvest rainwater; exclusion from these services or facilities; inequitable allocation of water resources; and pollution limit people’s access to sufficient clean water. In some cases excessive extraction and contamination of groundwater limit domestic use and threaten long-term use.

In rural areas, many people collect water of dubious quality from unprotected wells or surface water sources, often at a great distance from their homes, deterring them from collecting sufficient quantities. Toilets are often seen as unnecessary or unaffordable. In urban areas, low-income groups - particularly those living in informal settlements - often lack access to adequate water supply and sanitation. Piped water supplies and sewers seldom cover informal areas, which means that people living there access water from a variety of generally inadequate water supply options, such as wells built close to latrines or from small-scale water providers, such as door-to-door water vendors, whose water supplies may not be of good quality.

Sanitation in most countries is severely neglected by both governments and households. The number of toilets per inhabitant is generally inadequate, with no guarantee that they are hygienic to use. Because of the lack of sanitation at a household level (or, in many cases, at any level), many people will use plastic bags, streets or other unhygienic places for defecation.

The lack of access to water and sanitation has a severe effect on human health, exacerbates poverty and undermines economic development. It is estimated that at any one time nearly half the population of developing countries is suffering from health problems linked to inadequate water and sanitation. Approximately 4 billion cases of diarrhoea each year cause 2.2 million deaths, mostly among children under five – about 15 percent of all deaths of children under the age of five in developing countries. Lack of access to water and sanitation undermines economic and social development, due to the costs of disease, the unequal burden on women and children and the high costs of accessing water (in terms of time and money) that reduce people’s ability to secure other essential goods. Water shortages and unreliable access to water can reduce crop production and livestock health and can undermine the viability of businesses run by poor women and men, including home-based activities. In addition, without sufficient water, the ecosystem, for example the proper growth of trees and other flora necessary to prevent soil erosion, cannot be supported.

The current water and sanitation crisis is caused by issues related to poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships. Water and sanitation policies and programmes all too often exclude marginalised groups and areas such as informal settlements and arid areas. Nationally and internationally, the allocation of resources to water and sanitation is insufficient. The lack of access is exacerbated by a challenging social and environment context: accelerating urbanisation, increasing pollution and depletion of water resources and climate change. In addition, institutional changes, such as shifts in land ownership, decentralisation and delegation of responsibilities for public services are in some circumstances reducing the accessibility of water and sanitation.



COHRE Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation

See also

COHRE Manual on the Right to Water and Sanitation

HDR 2006 Chapter 1: Ending the Crisis in Water and Sanitation

External Resources


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