Right to water

Context of the water crisis

Beauty Munda, Kalidashi Munda and Tara Morol are going back home after collecting water from a pond sand filter, Bangladesh.

Munem Wasif/ Agence Vu for WaterAid

The world contains sufficient, clean freshwater for everyone’s basic personal and domestic needs. Personal and domestic uses of water account for less than ten per cent of the total amount of water used in human activities, although essential uses require a significantly lower percentage.

However, water is not equally distributed, leading to insufficient access. Lack of distribution networks, working systems to extract groundwater or harvest rainwater and, in some cases, exclusion from these services or facilities, limit the extent of peoples access to sufficient water. In some cases, excessive extraction of groundwater, often for agricultural or industrial use, limits domestic use and threatens the long-term sustainability of such groundwater sources. Groundwater is also at increasing risk of contamination from untreated wastewater from agriculture, industry or households.

The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report stresses that issues related to poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships cause the current water and sanitation crisis.At the time, over 1.1 billion individuals lacked access to a basic supply of water from a clean source that is likely to be safe; of these, the majority are people living in rural areas, according to the WHO UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme. The figure of 1.1 billion does not include the number of people who are unable to afford water, who face prohibitive waiting times for collecting water, who receive water at occasional intervals or have to collect water from dangerous areas.

In rural areas, many people collect water of dubious quality from unprotected wells or surface water sources, often at a great distance from their homes, deterring them from collecting sufficient quantities. This problem is significantly worse during the dry season, when the water table drops, and rivers and shallow wells dry up.

In urban areas, low-income groups, in particular those living in informal settlements, will often lack access to an adequate water supply and sanitation. Piped supplies seldom cover informal areas, meaning that people living there access water from a variety of generally inadequate water supply options, such as wells built close to latrines, water kiosks with water of dubious origin or from water vendors.

Due to a lack of adequate statistics, the number of people without access to water is often underestimated. As many of the informal settlements in urban areas are unrecognised by the local or national governments, the exact number of residents living in these settlements is often unknown, as is the status of water provision. Tenants may also be missing from the statistics where landlords do not declare them. Water can also be prohibitively expensive, so that even where water is available, people do not have access to a sufficient quantity for health and hygiene practices. As a result, there is considerable inequality in distribution of water and sanitation services in urban areas, with smaller urban centres particularly badly affected. Statistics for access to water and sanitation services in urban areas therefore tend to be uneven. Further to this, while people may use safe sources of water for some of their purposes, such as for drinking, this source may be prohibitively expensive to use for all domestic uses, forcing people to use unsafe sources for washing or cooking. This is not reflected in the statistics of access to water supply.

Sources: UN Human Development Report 2006 Beyond Scarcity, WHO & UNICEF, Meeting the MDG Drinking-Water and Sanitation Target and WHO & UNICEF, The Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000