From the Field

Global water crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

There’s nothing more essential to life on earth than water. Yet, from Cape Town to Flint, Michigan, and from rural, sub-Saharan Africa to Asia’s teeming megacities, there’s a global water crisis. People are struggling to access the quantity and quality of water they need for drinking, cooking, bathing, handwashing, and growing their food.

Amazing progress has been made in making clean water accessible, with people lacking access to clean water decreasing from 1.1 billion in 2000 to 785 million in 2017. But there are still many opportunities to multiply the benefits of clean water through improved sanitation and hygiene behavior change.

The United Nations recognizes the importance of addressing the global water crisis each year on World Water Day, March 22. Without clean, easily accessible water, families and communities are locked in poverty for generations. Children drop out of school and parents struggle to make a living.

Women and children are the most affected — children because they’re more vulnerable to diseases caused by dirty water and women and girls because they often bear the burden of carrying water for their families for an estimated 200 million hours each day.

Access to clean water changes everything; it’s a stepping-stone to development. When people gain access to clean water, they’re better able to practice good hygiene and sanitation. Children enjoy good health and are more likely to attend school. Parents put aside their worries about water-related diseases and lack of clean water access. Instead, they can water crops and livestock and diversify their incomes. Communities no longer vie for rights to a waterhole.

World Vision is reaching one new person with clean water every 10 seconds and one new person with handwashing behavior change programming as well. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we provided handwashing facilities at 4,789 schools and 2,480 healthcare facilities, and nearly 1 million households gained access to clean water as well.

Every child deserves clean water.

FAQs: What you need to know about the global water crisis

Explore frequently asked questions about water, sanitation, and hygiene. Learn how you can help children and families who lack clean water access.

Fast facts: Global water crisis

  • 785 million people lack access to clean water. That’s one in 10 people on the planet.
  • Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours hauling water every day.
  • The average woman in rural Africa walks 6 kilometers every day to haul 40 pounds of water.
  • Every day, more than 800 children under 5 die from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene practices.
  • 2 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation.
  • 673 million people defecate in the open.
  • One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals aims to provide universal access to clean water and sanitation by 2030.


How can I help end the global water crisis?

You can help families in need get access to clean water as a supporter of World Vision. Over the last five years, 20 million more people have received clean water through our work. Our goals for the future are even more ambitious, but achievable, with your help.

  • Pray: Ask God to pour His blessings out on families in need of clean water.
  • Give: Help children and families get lasting access to clean water.
  • Run or walk in the Global 6K for Water May 22, 2021 — right from your own home or neighborhood — to help children around the world get clean water access. You can also make a long-term commitment to join Team World Vision in the race to empower children and families around the world with clean water.


What are the benefits of water, sanitation, and hygiene for children and families?

An investment in clean water, combined with adequate sanitation and hygiene behavior change, is one of the most effective ways to improve lives and fight extreme poverty. The benefits include:

  • Families becoming healthier: Water, sanitation, and hygiene programs work together to powerfully prevent the spread of most illnesses and are one of the most effective ways to reduce child deaths.
  • Children getting better nourishment: Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene help kids grow taller, smarter, and stronger. They get more nutrition from the food they eat because they’re not sick. Families are able to use water to irrigate their gardens for more nutritious food year-round.
  • Children attending and excelling in school: When children don’t have to walk long distances to get water, they have more time to attend school and more energy to learn. This is especially important for girls, who most often collect water for their families.
  • Family income improving: Families spend less money on healthcare and are better able to pay for things like school supplies and fees. Clean water is also used for income-generating activities like making soap, bricks, and shea butter, as well as watering livestock and gardens.


Why do you combine clean water with good sanitation and hygiene? What is WASH?

Supporting families with hygiene behavior change and sanitation facilities, such as latrines and handwashing stations, multiplies the health benefits of clean water by helping to reduce the spread of illnesses and diseases. In fact, handwashing alone has been shown to result in children growing taller, stronger, and smarter. So intertwined are the issues of water, sanitation, and hygiene that they have been combined into one sector known in the global aid community as WASH.


If people have to walk so far for water, why don’t they move closer to where there is water?

Most people World Vision serves are farmers, and they depend on their crops to survive. They may not be able to purchase land in a new place, so moving isn’t an option for them. In addition, in areas with water shortages, water sources frequently change with the season, so people may have to move multiple times a year to be close to a water source. The solution is to get a permanent clean water source near their home.


Why can’t people dig their own wells?

People can and do dig their own shallow wells to access groundwater. However, these shallow wells are frequently contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites and don’t provide clean water.  Even if they’re initially safe, they can become contaminated from surface water entering the well after it rains.

World Vision provides protected and permanent water sources using professional drilling teams. The teams dig a deep borehole with a drilling rig and then cover the borehole area with a cement slab that prevents contamination of the water source during rainfall. Before the water point is open to the community, the water is tested to make sure it meets safety standards.

The community is trained on how to keep the environment around the water point clean and equipped on how to maintain the water point so that water continues to flow. This effort ensures that the community has a good water source that continues to last.


How are women and girls affected by a lack of clean water?

Women and girls bear the greatest burden because in the developing world they’re most likely to be responsible for hauling water to their homes. They spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day. The average African woman walks 6 kilometers to haul 40 pounds of water each day. This daily grind saps her energy for other activities and robs her of the opportunity to spend this time with her family, or pursue school and income activities to improve their lives.

Girls who attend school until adolescence are more likely to drop out when they start menstruating unless their school has clean water, latrines, sanitary supplies, and support for hygiene behavior change. Helping young women to manage menstrual health is not only about providing appropriate facilities, but also includes addressing social norms.

At childbirth, the lack of clean water, sanitation facilities, and proper hygiene contribute to high rates of disease and death among mothers and newborns in the developing world. World Vision is accelerating its push to ensure health clinics have access to clean water, latrines, and handwashing facilities to assure safer deliveries.


How much does it cost to empower one person with clean water?

Our average cost for World Vision to help one person in need get access to clean water is $50. But this price includes much more than clean water. It also ensures that a well or water point is maintained so it will last for generations. Also, by leveraging other resources, such as child sponsorship and local funds, each person who benefits from clean water is also trained and equipped to practice safe sanitation and hygiene.


Milestones of the global water crisis

1700s to 1800s: Industrialization leads to increased urbanization in England, highlighting the need for clean water supplies and sanitation.

1800s: Water shortages first appear in historical records.

1854: Dr. John Snow discovers the link between water and the spread of cholera during an outbreak in London.

1866: In the United States, there are 136 public water systems; by the turn of the century, there are 3,000.

1900: Since 1900, more than 11 million people have died from drought, and drought has affected more than 2 billion people.

1972: The U.S. Clean Water Act updates 1948 legislation to control water pollution and funds construction of sewage treatment plants.

1993: The U.N. General Assembly designates March 22 as World Water Day.

2000: The U.N. member states set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for development progress, including a 2015 target to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

2003: UN-Water was founded as a coordinating platform for issues of sanitation and fresh water access.

2005: About 35% of the global population experiences chronic water shortages, up from 9% in 1960.

2005 to 2015: U.N. member states prioritize water and sanitation development during International Decade for Action “Water for Life.”

2008: The U.N.-recognized International Year of Sanitation prioritizes health and dignity.

2010: The MDGs clean water access target is achieved five years ahead of schedule. More than 2 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990. The U.N. General Assembly recognizes the right of each person to have adequate supplies of water for personal and domestic use that are physically accessible, equitably distributed, safe, and affordable.

2013: The U.N. designates November 19 as World Toilet Day to highlight the global issue that billions of people still do not have access to proper sanitation.

2015: About 2.6 billion people have gained access to clean water in the last 25 years, and about 1.4 billion gained basic access to sanitation since 2000. The U.N. member states sign on to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — successors to the MDGs, that promise clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.

2018: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres makes a global call to action for WASH in all healthcare facilities, citing how they’re crucial for preventing and reducing diseases. Without basic WASH services, they can contribute to more infections and preventable deaths for mothers and newborns.

2020: About 1.8. billion patients and health workers face a higher risk of COVID-19 infection and other diseases due to the lack of basic water and sanitation services at health services, according to WHO and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).


World Vision’s water work

World Vision is the leading nongovernmental provider of clean water in the developing world. We focus on ensuring that the extremely poor — including those with disabilities — in rural areas with the greatest disease burden have access to clean water, improved sanitation, and hygiene behavior change promotion. More than 1,200 World Vision water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals and thousands of development professionals live and work in communities worldwide to co-create solutions that last.

World Vision’s work results in water that continues to flow. We invest an average of 15 years in a community, cultivating local ownership and training people to manage and maintain water points. An independent study by The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, one of the premier academic groups in water research, examined 1,470 water sources in 520 communities located in the Greater Afram Plains region of Ghana. The report of their research, published in 2015, showed that nearly 80% of wells drilled by World Vision continued to function at high levels even after 20 years, thanks largely to our community engagement model.

World Vision believes we can solve the global water crisis within our lifetimes. Our efforts include:

  • Drilling and rehabilitating wells, developing piped-water systems, and other vital water points
  • Teaching local community members how to keep water flowing
  • Overseeing the building of latrines and handwashing facilities
  • Promoting healthy hygiene practices through behavior change programming

Timeline of World Vision’s water work

1960s: World Vision begins small water projects.

Early 1980s: Severe droughts in Africa focus the world’s attention on the urgent need for clean, accessible water.

1985: World Vision begins water drilling projects in Ghana.

1990: World Vision increases its commitment to clean water, and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation partners in the Ghana water effort.

2000s: Scaling up water work

  • 2003: Our West Africa Water Initiative extends drilling into Mali and Niger.
  • 2005: West Africa’s 2,000th well is drilled in Ghana.
  • 2006: Large-scale water work begins in Ethiopia.
  • 2009: Large-scale water work beings in Zambia, including promoting safe sanitation and hygiene practices.

2010s: Expanding reach and digging deep

  • 2011: World Vision begins an intentional scale-up of water and sanitation activities in 10 countries in Africa. The number of people with clean water access increases 20-fold when comparing 2010 to 2016.
  • 2012: Drilling begins in Honduras.
  • 2013: Drilling begins in India. World Vision and Procter & Gamble (P&G) celebrate a partnership that has provided 1 billion liters of purified water, hosting former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton to see the impact in Rwanda.
  • 2014: A University of North Carolina independent study reveals that nearly 80% of World Vision wells in Ghana still function at high levels, even after 20 years. The 1,000th productive well is drilled in Mali. In December, the U.S. Congress passes Water for the World Act, prioritizing the provision of clean water and sanitation for the world’s most vulnerable people. World Vision starts reaching one person every 30 seconds with clean water.
  • 2015: In September, driven by a $40 million gift to its water programs by Dana and Dave Dornsife, World Vision announces plans to reach one new person with clean water every 10 seconds by 2020 — eventually achieving universal water access everywhere it works by 2030.
  • 2016: World Vision expands its clean water, sanitation, and hygiene behavior change work into more countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, along with the Middle East, reaching 4.6 million new people with clean water.
  • 2017: World Vision now reaches one new person every 10 seconds with clean water. In June, World Vision drills its 1,500th borehole well since 2003 in Mali.

2020s: Ambitious goals

  • 2020: Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, World Vision reaches its goal of helping 20 million people around the world get lasting access to clean water.
  • 2022: We’re on track to make clean water available for everyone, everywhere we work in Rwanda.
  • 2030: World Vision aims for 50 million people — everyone, everywhere we work — to have access to clean water and sanitation.

Learn more about World Vision’s water work.


What is World Vision’s 2030 goal for its water programs? Is it achievable?

World Vision’s ambitious, yet achievable goal is that by 2030 all communities located within our development areas worldwide will have access to clean water, adequate sanitation, handwashing facilities, and menstrual hygiene facilities, as well as hygiene behavior change promotion.

The global WASH program will specifically promote the inclusion of the most vulnerable men, women, and children. It will ensure that people with disabilities, those affected by HIV and AIDS, and other vulnerable groups in each area are actively included and benefit from hygiene messaging and increased access to sustainable clean water and improved sanitation.

We believe through partnering with local governments, communities, and other humanitarian organizations, collectively we can achieve this goal. In 2020, World Vision reached 3.4 million people with sustainable sources of clean water, 1.8 million people with water during emergency situations, and 2.7 million people with improved sanitation.


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