A woman smiles with a bucket of water, a baby tied to her back. A water tower with the World Vision logo is seen in the distance.

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

Water, the essence of life on earth, is a vital resource. Yet, a global water crisis continues to challenge people’s access to the quantity and quality needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, handwashing, and growing food.

While the number of people lacking access to clean water has fallen from 1.1 billion in 2000 to 703 million in 2022, challenges remain. In addition to the importance of having basic access to a clean water source, there are also many opportunities to multiply the benefits of clean water through improved sanitation and hygiene behavior change.

Each year, the United Nations recognizes the urgency of addressing the global water crisis on World Water Day, observed on March 22.

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

Fast facts: Global water crisis

  • 703 million people lack access to clean water. That’s 1 in 10 people on the planet.
  • Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours carrying water every day, walking 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles) every day to haul 40 pounds of water.
  • More than 1,000 children under 5 die every day from diseases caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene practices.
  • 1.69 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation.
  • 419 million people practice open defecation.
  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation) is universal access to clean water and sanitation by 2030.

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Every child deserves clean water.

What benefits do water, sanitation, and hygiene offer to 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 people’s lives and tackle 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 mortality rates.
  • Children getting better nourishment: Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene help kids grow taller, stronger, and healthier. They get more nutrition from their food because they’re not sick. Families can use water to irrigate their gardens to grow more nutritious food year-round.
  • Children attending and succeeding 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 spend their days collecting water for their families instead of focusing on school.
  • Family income improving: Families can 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 and shea butter, as well as watering livestock and gardens.

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A man smiles at the camera as he kneels next to a tap with water flowing into one of two yellow plastic containers.
In Afghanistan, Sakhidad, a 55-year-old father of four, said his children used to collect water daily while he worked. The children had to walk far away from their home in Badghis Province to find enough water. “World Vision built a water container as well as water taps right in front of our houses. What else we could dream of? Now we are very comfortable and are very happy. I want to thank World Vision because they have done so much for us — they built a world for us and our children,” says Sakhidad. (©2022 World Vision)

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

Beyond clean water, maintaining proper hygiene behavior and sanitation is crucial for overall health. When we support families with hygiene behavior change and sanitation facilities, such as latrines and handwashing stations, it not only enhances the health benefits of clean water but helps prevent the spread of illnesses and diseases. Even simple actions like handwashing can contribute to children growing taller, stronger, and healthier. So intertwined are water, sanitation, and hygiene that they have been combined into one sector known in the global aid community as WASH.

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Why do people walk long distances for water instead of settling nearer to water sources?

Many people served by World Vision are farmers who rely on their crops or livestock to survive. Families are unable to move because it costs too much to start over. In places where water is scarce, or changes with the seasons, some people do have to move many times. The best solution is to make a clean water source close to their homes.

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A woman in a floral head covering smiles as a baby she’s holding drinks clean water from a bottle at a Niger health clinic.
At the Kargui Bangou Health Center, World Vision’s programming has helped equip mothers and their babies with clean water for drinking and washing in Dosso, Niger. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

Why is it challenging for people to dig their own wells?

While some people dig their own shallow wells for groundwater, these open and unprotected wells are often contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites, failing to provide clean water.  Even if they’re initially safe, they risk contamination from surface water runoff, particularly in areas where open defecation is common.

World Vision provides protected and permanent water sources using technologies best suited to each context where we work. Water taps are commonly built from piped-water systems, connecting clean sources like drilled boreholes or protected springs to a distribution network. For drilled wells, a borehole area with a cement slab prevents contamination during rainfall. Water undergoes rigorous testing before community access.

Communities are trained to maintain cleanliness around water points and manage systems for continuous water flow. This effort ensures that the community has a lasting and reliable water source.

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

Women and girls bear the greatest burden of the global water crisis because they’re most likely to be responsible for hauling water to their homes in the developing world.

  • Daily water collection: Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day.
  • Water access in the developing world: The average woman or girl walks 6 kilometers — about 3.7 miles — to carry 40 pounds of water every day. This daily task saps her energy for other activities and robs her of the opportunity to spend this time with her family, or to pursue school and income activities to improve her life.
  • Menstrual health and education: 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 addressing social norms.
  • Maternal and newborn health: The lack of clean water, sanitation facilities, and proper hygiene contributes to high rates of disease and death among birthing mothers and newborns in the developing world. In areas where World Vision works, half of the health clinics don’t have clean water, and 5 in 6 don’t even have basic handwashing facilities.

World Vision is accelerating our push to ensure health clinics have access to clean water, latrines, and handwashing facilities so moms can have safer deliveries.

As a global leader in partnering with rural health clinics, we’re dedicated to providing 3,000 healthcare facilities with clean water access. This initiative involves fortifying the health system in every facility across Niger and Zambia, benefiting an estimated 2.4 million people by 2030.

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A mother in an orange head covering kisses the nose of her newborn baby as she holds him close in her hands.
Haoua Hassane holds her newborn son, delivered just a few hours ago, in a World Vision–supported health clinic in Niger. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

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

Our average cost for World Vision to supply one person with access to clean water is $50. This covers the initial access and ensures long-term upkeep of wells and water points for generational impact. And 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.

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World Vision’s water work

World Vision is the leading nongovernmental provider of clean water in the developing world. Our goal is to ensure vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, in disease-burdened rural areas have access to clean water, improved sanitation, and hygiene. Some notable accomplishments include:

  • We reach one new person every 10 seconds with clean water and one new person with a handwashing facility as well.
  • In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we provided handwashing facilities at 14,175 schools and 4,940 healthcare facilities, and more than 9.4 million households gained access to clean water from 2020 to 2022.
  • More than 1,200 World Vision WASH professionals and thousands of development professionals live and work in communities worldwide to co-create lasting solutions.

World Vision’s impact is sustained through water sources that continue to flow. With an average investment of 10 to 15 years in a community, we cultivate local ownership and train people to manage and maintain water points.

World Vision believes we can help solve the global water crisis within our lifetimes. To do this, we:

  • Drill and rehabilitate wells, develop piped-water systems, and create other vital water points
  • Teach local community members how to keep water flowing
  • Oversee the building of latrines and handwashing facilities
  • Promote healthy hygiene practices through behavior change programming

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What are World Vision’s water goals?

In 2015, World Vision and our partners made a commitment to reach 50 million people with clean water by 2030 — everyone, everywhere we worked based on our footprint at the time. This means equipping all communities in our project areas worldwide with access to clean water, adequate sanitation, handwashing facilities, as well as hygiene behavior change promotion.

Our global WASH program specifically promotes 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 2023, World Vision reached nearly 3.1 million people with sustainable sources of clean water and nearly 2.5 million people with improved sanitation. Additionally, we supported 2.9 million people with handwashing facilities.

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How can I help end the global water crisis?

You can help families in need gain access to clean water as a supporter of World Vision. Here’s how:

  • Pray: Join us in praying for people in vulnerable communities in need of clean water.
  • Give: Help equip children and families with lasting access to clean water.
  • Get involved: Walk, run, or roll World Vision’s Global 6K for Water® on May 18, 2024, to empower children worldwide with 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.

Read how one grandmother and her granddaughter are going on 11 years of raising funds for clean water.

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A girl stands in front of a row of faucets with clean running water and washes her hands.
Jovilyn (pictured at 9) reminds other children about the importance of proper handwashing to prevent diseases. Jovilyn lives in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where access to public handwashing facilities is limited due to poor water connection. World Vision and partner organizations built 10 portable handwashing facilities in her community to help families practice safe hygiene. (©2021 World Vision/photo by Lanelyn Carillo)

Timeline of World Vision’s water work

1960s: World Vision started small water projects.

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

1985: World Vision began water drilling projects in Ghana.

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

2000s: We scaled up water work.

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

Read how Max Lucado encountered the realities of dirty water in Ethiopia.

2010s: We expanded our reach and dug deep.

  • 2011: World Vision began an intentional scale-up of WASH activities in 10 countries in Africa. The number of people with clean water access increases 20-fold when comparing 2010 to 2016.
  • 2012: WASH programming began in Honduras.
  • 2013: WASH began 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 revealed that nearly 80% of World Vision wells in Ghana still functioned at high levels, even after 20 years. The 1,000th productive well was drilled in Mali. In December, the U.S. Congress passed Water for the World Act, prioritizing the provision of clean water and sanitation for the world’s most vulnerable people. World Vision started reaching one person every 30 seconds with clean water.
  • 2015: In September, driven by a $40 million gift to our water programs by Dana and Dave Dornsife, World Vision announced plans to reach one new person with clean water every 10 seconds by 2020 — with the vision of achieving universal water access everywhere we work.
  • 2016: World Vision expanded our WASH 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 achieved the milestone of reaching one new person every 10 seconds with clean water. In June, World Vision drilled our 1,500th borehole well in Mali since 2003.

2020s: We set ambitious goals.

  • 2020: Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, World Vision reached our five-year goal of helping 20 million people around the world get lasting access to clean water.
  • 2023: We exceeded our goal to make clean water available for everyone, everywhere we work in Rwanda, ultimately reaching over 1.1 million people.
  • 2030: World Vision aims to reach 50 million people with access to clean water between 2015 and 2030. As part of this commitment, we reached 25.5 million people between 2016 and 2022.

Learn more about World Vision’s water work.

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Milestones of the global water crisis

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

1800s: Water shortages first appeared in historical records.

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

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

1900: Since 1900, more than 11 million people had lost their lives to drought, and more than 2 billion people have been affected.

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

1993: The U.N. General Assembly designated 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 sanitation and freshwater access issues.

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

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

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

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

2013: The U.N. designated November 19 as World Toilet Day to highlight the global issue that billions of people still don’t have access to proper sanitation.

2015: About 2.6 billion people have had access to clean water in the last 25 years, and about 1.4 billion gained access to basic sanitation since 2000. The U.N. member states signed 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 made a global call to action for WASH in all healthcare facilities, citing their crucial role in disease prevention and reduction. Without basic WASH services, health centers could contribute to more infections and preventable deaths for mothers and newborns.

2020: Globally, 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).

2023: Up to an estimated 3 billion people globally face water shortages. This crisis is set to escalate in the coming decades, particularly in urban areas, without enhanced international cooperation. These findings are from the U.N. World Water Development Report 2023. The report revealed that 2 billion people (26% of the population) lack safe drinking water, while 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation.

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Two sisters: Two worlds

Two girls wearing pink head scarves pull ropes to draw water from an open well.

Clean water helps Sarah reconsider marrying too young

A smile fills a young girl's face as she stands next to a house made of mud and bricks.

Clean water opens doors to new spiritual life in Ethiopia

Three Ethiopian girls wash their hands.