IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

U.N.: A fifth of world lacks clean drinking water 

Kenyans with plastic containers search for water along road in Wajir northeastern Kenya
Kenyans with plastic containers search for water along a road in northeastern Kenya in January. For centuries Kenya's pastoralists have criss-crossed the arid plains of eastern Africa, moving with their families and herds in search of water and grazing pastures.  Antony Njuguna / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mismanagement, limited resources and environmental damage have combined to deny 1.1 billion people access to safe water, a U.N. report said Thursday.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the hardest-hit areas, where ecological degradation, poor water management and a burgeoning population have led to water shortages exacerbating poverty, disease and drought, the report said.

The report was compiled by 24 U.N. agencies, who say it is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the planet’s freshwater supplies.

Globally, diarrheal diseases and malaria kill around 3.1 million people a year. The U.N. said 1.6 million could be saved if they had safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.

Millions of dollars lost due to poor sanitation
The report estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity and health care costs are lost each year because of poor water and sanitation. Meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without a steady supply of clean water by 2015 would save $7 billion annually, the report said.

Water pollution in China alone cost the country $1.7 billion in lost industrial income in 1992, the last year for which figures were available in the report.

In Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa, where drought is creating a hunger crisis, better water management could also save lives, the U.N. said.

“Good governance would certainly reduce the impact of drought,” said Salif Diop, head of the water unit in the early warning and assessment division of the U.N. Environment Program. “Deforestation, overgrazing, not managing lakes; all those are factors that aggravate drought.”

Greater demands on resources
Water use has increased six-fold in the last century, double the rate of population growth, the report said. More water is needed for food production, which must grow by 55 percent to meet food needs by 2030. But private investment in water services is declining and financial resources for the water sector are stagnating, the report found.

The 584-page report, to be presented at the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City next week, says better water management by local authorities, the private sector and civil society — not just by governments — is critical.

“Good governance is essential for managing our increasingly stretched supplies of freshwater and indispensable for tackling poverty,” said Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the U.N. educational and cultural body, UNESCO.