Water is one of life’s essential needs. However, water crises are becoming more commonplace around the world, as billions of people continue to suffer from a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. The risk of droughts is also becoming an alarmingly reoccurring issue across the world and is likely to be exacerbated in the future due to climate change. In turn, water-related conflicts worldwide are on the rise.
The inequality of water access
While access to water and sanitation are basic human rights, water inequality remains a major issue worldwide. Although the number of people without basic drinking water services has declined by more than 30 percent over the past two decades, there were still roughly 800 million people lacking basic drinking water in 2020. More than half lived in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the number of people without basic drinking water in the region increased by an estimated 40 million since the beginning of the century. In 2020, more than 20 percent of the population in Oceania and Sub-Saharan African relied on unimproved or surface water sources. In comparison, most of the drinking water in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Europe was safely managed. Unsafe water sources can exacerbate malnutrition and are one of the leading risk factors for infectious diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and polio.
The varying access to water worldwide also creates considerable gaps in basic hygiene access. Nine percent of the global population had no access to basic handwashing facilities at home in 2020. Again, the largest proportion of population affected by this is in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in Rwanda less than two out of 10 people had access to handwashing facilities, representing the lowest coverage of this service worldwide. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) aim to increase clean water access and improve sanitation services around the globe.
Water stress and scarcity
Many countries around the world face water stress, especially in arid regions. The Middle East is home to some of the most water-dependent countries in the world, such as Kuwait and Bahrain, whose lack of water resources has resulted in a reliance on desalination plants. While desalination can help substitute the lack of freshwater, the process is incredibly energy-intensive and often environmentally problematic.
With freshwater resources and water access unevenly distributed across the world’s regions, water scarcity is expected to become a leading cause of political and geographic conflicts. The number of conflicts triggered by water has increased significantly in the past decade, with almost 80 occurrences recorded in 2021. Arid regions such as western and southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa were the most affected by water conflicts in the 21st century.
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Erick Burgueño Salas
Research expert covering climate change and the water industry