The water inequalities that still persist

Today is the World Day of Social Justice, where the ongoing need to tackle poverty, inequality and exclusion is recognized. Global inequalities regarding access to clean water supplies is something that doesn’t always receive the same coverage as other inequalities but they still persist. Universal access to clean water and sanitation is number 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. In this article, we take a brief look at the challenges to overcome.

Global water inequalities – the current picture

Although billions of people have gained access to clean and safe drinking water over the past 25 years, there are still a lot of inequalities that remain. The UN aims to ensure available and sustainably managed water and sanitation for all by 2030, but current data and predictions show that there is still a long way to go…

  • According to a 2017 WHO/Unicef joint report, around 844 million people worldwide still lack access to basic clean drinking water;
  • The same report found that 2.3 billion people lack access to even basic sanitation;
  • The problem of water inequality is linked to general poverty and social inequality, with problems being more drastic in least developed regions. Over half of those, without access to safe drinking water, live in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • With water scarcity predicted to get worse over the next 20-25 years, there is a danger that these inequalities could worsen despite current efforts.

Inequalities within countries – the urban-rural and rich-poor divide

In addition to inequalities between countries, there also exists big disparities within countries when it comes to accessing clean water and sanitation services. Two of the biggest gaps occur between richest and poorest sections within countries and between urban and rural populations. This highlights how improvements over the last couple of decades have been concentrated largely within the wealthiest, urbanised regions of developing nations.

  • 8 out of 10 people without access to clean water live in rural communities;
  • In Angola, there has been high overall improvement in water access but a 40% gap between urban and rural areas and a 65% gap between richest and poorest sections;
  • In Bangladesh, there has been great overall improvement in sanitation but problems such as open defecation still persist in the most deprived areas;

Impact on gender inequalities

Inequalities regarding access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation also cut across other social inequalities. This is most clearly seen when it comes to gender inequalities, with the burden of sourcing and collecting safe water largely falling on women and girls. Households in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as countries such as India and Pakistan cannot source water within 30 minutes of home.

  • Families without a nearby water supply can spend up to five hours a day collecting water;
  • Females in the household bear the responsibility for water collection in 8 out of 10 households in poorer regions;
  • Households without clean water or sanitation are also more prone to health problems and diseases, with females being largely responsible for caring for sick family members;
  • This has education implications, as young girls often have to miss school to perform water collection and caring chores.

Other inequalities that exist

Looking beyond the basic inequalities regarding accessing clean water supplies and basic sanitation, the WHO/Unicef joint report identified a number of other issues highlighting water inequalities:

  • Many countries that are able to access clean water supplies can’t do so every day. For example, water shortages in South Africa in recent years have meant that some parts of the country have been without piped water supply for 5-6 days at a time;
  • Some countries have water supplies categorised as “safe” but are still highly risky. For example, e-coli is still detected in over 50% of the drinking water in Ghana and over 80% in Nepal;
  • The costs of water supply vary greatly across the world. In Tanzania, access to improved water supply has increased but expenditure on safe drinking water accounts for 5% of overall spending for 10% of the population.

These statistics show that there is a long way to go to get close to universal equitable access to clean water over the next decade, even though things have been moving in the right direction. Progress will undoubtedly depend not only on the success in tackling other sustainability goals such as poverty and overall inequality, but also in our attempts to manage existing global water resources and avoid the water shortage crisis that many experts are now warning about.

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