U.N.: 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water

Around 80% of people in Asia live under water stress.
By Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
U.N.: 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water A woman carries a water can from a mobile water tanker in a residential area in New Delhi, India, on March 22, 2023.
Credit: AP

More than a quarter of the world’s population relies on unsafe drinking water, a United Nations agency said, as world leaders gathered in New York to discuss vital water resources facing a multifaceted global crisis. 

Globally, 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water, and 3.6 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation, according to a new report by UNESCO.

“Around 80% of people living under water stress lived in Asia; in particular, northeast China, as well as India and Pakistan,” the report said.

“Between two and three billion people experience water shortages for at least one month per year, posing severe risks to livelihoods, notably through food security and access to electricity.”

According to researchers, approximately 10% of the global population lives in countries with high or critical water stress. UNESCO report projected the global urban population facing water scarcity to double from 930 million in 2016 to between 1.7 billion and 2.4 billion in 2050, with India to be the most severely affected.

Asian Development Bank said last year that almost 500 million people in Asia-Pacific do not have access to at least basic water supplies, while water demands are projected to increase by about 55% by 2030.

Water leaks from a tap on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India, on March 22, 2023. Credit: AP

U.N. conference to tackle the water crisis

The UNESCO report comes as the U.N. 2023 Water Conference started on Wednesday, which is also World Water Day.

The three-day event, the first on water security in almost half a century, is being co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan in New York.

“We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the start of the event.

“We’ve broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems, and contaminated groundwater.” 

Guterres called for more investments in water and sanitation and increased efforts to address climate change, saying that “climate action and a sustainable water future are two sides of the same coin.”

Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon said 1,000 of 14,000 glaciers in his country have entirely melted in the last few decades.

Some 171 countries are participating in the water event, which will end with an agreement to commit to a voluntary, non-binding “Water Action Agenda.”

The United States said it would invest $49 billion in water and sanitation at home and around the world to be put toward “equitable, climate-resilient water and sanitation investments at home and around the world,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The funding, the mechanism for which has not been explained, “will help create jobs, prevent conflicts, safeguard public health, reduce the risk of famine and hunger, and enable us to respond to climate change and natural disasters,” she said.

A partially dried lake is seen on a hot day in Ahmedabad, India, on May 10, 2022. Credit: AP

UNESCO report to provide details on SDG goal gaps

Providing everyone with clean drinking water and sanitation is one of the 17-point Sustainable Development Goals the U.N. has set to reach by 2030. 

UNESCO’s World Water Development Report 2023 reveals the considerable gap needed to be filled to meet those goals.

The estimated cost of meeting the goals is between $600 billion and $1 trillion a year, Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the report, said at a news conference.

The report said water use has been increasing globally by around 1% a year for the past four decades and is expected to grow at a similar rate through 2050.

It also said that population growth, socio-economic development, and changing consumption patterns drive water usage. 

According to World Resources Institute, agriculture amounts to about 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, while industry and energy consume 19% of freshwater consumption globally. 

Connor said the primary source of water pollution is untreated wastewater.

“Globally, 80% of wastewater is released to the environment without any treatment,” he said, “and in many developing countries, it’s pretty much 99%.”

A man collects water from Tamblingan lake in Indonesia’s Bali, where the water table has decreased over 50 meters (164 feet) in some areas, on April 16, 2022. Credit: AP

Climate change exacerbates the water crisis

The global water cycle has been wrecked by decades of mismanagement, experts say, as the rise in heatwaves and extremely high temperatures are increasing water demand.

Due to climate change, “seasonal water scarcity will increase in regions where it is currently abundant — such as Central Africa, East Asia and parts of South America — and worsen in regions where water is already in short supply, such as the Middle East and the Sahara in Africa,” the UNESCO report said.

The growing incidence of extreme and prolonged droughts stresses ecosystems, with dire consequences for plant and animal species, it said, adding nearly three-quarters of recent disasters had been related to water. 

Between 2000 and 2019, floods alone caused $650 billion in economic losses, affecting 1.65 billion people and resulting in over 100,000 deaths, according to a United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction 2020 report. 

Meanwhile, droughts affected another 1.43 billion people, with recorded estimated losses of nearly 130 billion dollars, over the same period.  

A World Resources Institute estimation showed that securing water for everyone by 2030 could cost just over 1% of the global GDP. 

“We are woefully unprepared: much of the world’s water infrastructure and policies were designed for a climate that no longer exists,” said Ani Dasgupta, WRI’s president and CEO.

The U.N. Water Conference should be a turning point to prioritize water resilience with “a plan to fundamentally transform how we manage water for the new climate reality,” he added.


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