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 drinking water accessible to 2.6 billion people in developing countries from 1990 to 2015. Yet there are still many opportunities to multiply the benefits of clean water through improved sanitation and hygiene education.
The United Nations recognizes the importance of addressing the global water crisis each year on World Water Day, March 22.
Globally, 844 million people lack access to clean water. 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 worst affected — children because they are more vulnerable to diseases of 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 are 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 access to clean water. Instead, they can water crops and livestock and diversify their incomes. Communities no longer vie for rights to a waterhole.
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 billion 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 coordinating platform for issues of sanitation and fresh water access.
2005: Thirty-five percent of the global population experiences chronic water shortages, up from 9 percent 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 Nov. 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 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: Worldwide, 2.1 billion people still live without safe drinking water in their homes and more than 1 billion people still have no choice but to defecate outside.
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.
- Fast facts: Global water crisis
- How can I help end the global water crisis?
- What are the benefits of water, sanitation, and hygiene for children and families?
- Why do you combine clean water with sanitation and hygiene? What is WASH?
- How are women and girls affected by lack of clean water?
- How much does it cost to bring clean water to one person?
- What is World Vision’s 2030 goal for its water programs? Is it achievable?
Fast facts: Global water crisis
- 844 million people lack basic drinking water access, more than 1 of every 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 age 5 die from diarrhea attributed to poor water and sanitation.
- 2.3 billion people live without access to basic sanitation.
- 1 billion people practice open defecation.
- 90 percent of all natural disasters are water-related.
How can I help end the global water crisis?
You can help bring clean water to families in need as a supporter of World Vision. Over the last five years, we reached more than 14 million people with clean water. 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 provide clean water for children and families.
Run or walk in the Global 6K for Water May 19 to bring clean water to children around the world, or make a long-term commitment to join Team World Vision in the race to bring clean water and the opportunity for fullness of life to children around the world.
What are the benefits of water, sanitation, and hygiene for children and families?
An investment in clean water, combined with basic sanitation and hygiene education, is one of the most effective ways to improve lives and fight extreme poverty. The benefits include:
- Families become 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 are better nourished: Safe water, sanitation, and hygiene help kids grow taller, smarter, and stronger. They get more nutrition from the food they eat because they are not sick. Families are able to use water to irrigate gardens for more nutritious food year-round.
- Children can attend and excel 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 the family.
- Family income improves: Families spend less money on healthcare and are better able pay for things like school supplies and fees. Water also is 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 sanitation and hygiene? What is WASH?
Providing hygiene education and sanitation facilities, such as latrines and hand-washing stations, multiplies the health benefits of clean water by helping to reduce the spread of illness and disease. 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.
How are women and girls affected by lack of clean water?
Women and girls bear the greatest burden because in the developing world they are 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 hygiene training. Helping young women to manage menstrual health is not just about providing appropriate facilities, but also includes addressing social norms.
At childbirth, lack of sanitation, clean water, 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 bring clean water, latrines, and hand-washing facilities to more health clinics to assure safer deliveries.
How much does it cost to bring clean water to one person?
Our average cost for World Vision to bring clean water to one person in Africa is $50. But this price actually includes much more than just clean water. It also includes the costs involved to ensure 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.
What is World Vision’s 2030 goal for its water programs? Is it achievable?
World Vision’s goal is that by 2030 all communities located within our development areas worldwide will have access to safe water (defined as a 30-minute or less round-trip walk to the water source), adequate sanitation, hand-washing facilities, and menstrual hygiene facilities, as well as hygiene promotion and behavior change.
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 safe water and improved sanitation.
We believe through partnering with local governments, communities, and other humanitarian organizations, collectively we can help achieve this goal based on what’s been achieved over the last five years — we reached more than 14 million people with clean water.
World Vision’s water work
World Vision is the leading humanitarian provider of clean drinking water in the developing world. We focus on bringing water to the extremely poor — including those with disabilities — in rural areas with the greatest disease burden. More than 700 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 locals 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 percent 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, developing, and repairing wells and other vital water points
- Teaching local community members how to keep water flowing
- Overseeing the building of latrines and hand-washing facilities
- Promoting healthy hygiene practices through education and 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: 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 sanitation and hygiene practices.
- 2011: World Vision begins intentional scale-up of water and sanitation activities in 10 countries in Africa. Numbers of clean water beneficiaries increase 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: University of North Carolina independent study reveals nearly 80 percent 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: Driven by a $40 million gift to its water programs by Dana and Dave Dornsife, World Vision announces in September 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 water, sanitation, and hygiene 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.
2018 to 2030: World Vision sets ambitious goals for global water work
- 2020: 20 million new people served with clean water
- 2022: Clean water made available for everyone, everywhere we work in Rwanda.
- 2030: 50 million people — everyone, everywhere we work — have access to clean water and sanitation.