The Water Crisis: Access To Usable Freshwater, & Clean/Safe Drinking Water

The Water Crisis: Access To Usable Freshwater, & Clean/Safe Drinking Water

There are a number of different issues when it comes to water as a resource in different parts of the world.

One of those issues is being able to access safe/clean freshwater, to both use and drink.

Some countries have never had access to, or have had problems accessing safe/clean water to drink and to use – and these countries are sometimes referred to as being in a ‘water crisis’.

In this guide we discuss what the water crisis is, what causes access issues, the effects of a lack of sufficient access to non contaminated water, countries most affected, and how we can solve and prevent these water crisis issues.


Summary – What To Know About The Water Crisis

The water crisis is when there is a lack of access to safe and clean freshwater to either use or drink.

Low income and poverty stricken countries, those with high water pollution and contamination rates, those with small freshwater reserves (water scarce countries), rural areas, and high populated place can have issues with clean water access, and supply of fresh drinking water.

The solution depends on the circumstances of the water crisis – but it is usually multi pronged.

What is clear though is that clean and safe water is critical to any society to function and grow.

The impacts of having a lack of freshwater or clean drinking water are wide ranging and can be both life threatening and catastrophic.


The Different Global Water Issues

Before we get into talking about the water crisis in more depth, it’s important to get a general idea of the different water issues.

You can read a guide detailing the different global water issues and terms/phrases used to describe them here.

It’s really water access, and water quality we are talking about when we talk about the water crisis.

To put it in layman’s terms, the main steps finding for water to use or drink are:

  • find a freshwater source or sources
  • access it < main part of the water crisis
  • assess the quality of the water to make sure it’s suitable to use or drink, and treat it if necessary before using or drinking < part of the water crisis
  • make sure it stays protected from contamination or pollution while in use < part of the water crisis
  • manage the water source in terms of supply, withdrawal rates, natural events like droughts, growth in population, climate change etc.


The Water Crisis: Access To Usable Freshwater, & Clean/Safe Drinking Water

When we talk about the water crisis, we are mainly focussing on countries and regions that:

  • Don’t have sufficient physical or economic access to freshwater
  • Don’t have sufficiently protected freshwater to drink (protected against contamination or pollution that might make it unsafe to drink)
  • Don’t have sufficiently protected freshwater to use (protected against contamination or pollution that might make it unsafe to use). Note that water can be unsafe to drink, but safe to use for cleaning for example
  • Or, a combination of these factors/issues

The water crisis mainly affects low income/developing countries with access issues, but water quality in particular can affect developed countries (like the Flint, Michigan event).

It’s very important to note that there can be access/improved access to freshwater, but that doesn’t mean the water is of a quality to use or drink. Water quality is a separate issue to water access.


Improved Water Sources, & ‘Safe’ Water Sources For Drinking

One of the goals with water access is to get access to an improved water source. This can be defined as:

  • “An improved drinking water source includes piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection).
  • Access to drinking water from an improved source does not ensure that the water is safe or adequate, as these characteristics are not tested at the time of survey.
  • But improved drinking water technologies are more likely than those characterized as unimproved to provide safe drinking water and to prevent contact with human excreta.
  • While information on access to an improved water source is widely used, it is extremely subjective, and such terms as safe, improved, adequate, and reasonable may have different meanings in different countries despite official WHO definitions.
  • Even in high-income countries treated water may not always be safe to drink.
  • Access to an improved water source is equated with connection to a supply system; it does not take into account variations in the quality and cost (broadly defined) of the service.”

– WorldBank, & UNICEF/WHO, via


Per WHO/UNICEF, via the

  • Some sources protect against contamination, but it still might not be safe to drink the water.
  • To be considered “safe”, a source of drinking water must be free from pathogens and high levels of harmful substances. Globally, the main health concern is faecal contamination, which is identified by the presence of bacteria such as E.coli.
  • In many places, a water point is designed to protect against contamination, but the water from it might still have traces of E.coli – the groundwater may be contaminated by faulty latrines, or the containers people use to carry and store water may contain traces of the bacteria.
  • In Nepal, 91% of the population drink from an improved water source, but E.coli has still been detected.


Causes Of Lack Of Access To Usable Freshwater, & Clean/Safe Drinking Water

Some of the major causes of a lack of clean usable water and safe drinking water in a country or region are:

  • Being a low income/low GDP country – not having the economic/financial capacity to set up and maintain safe access to freshwater. This is the main cause and it affects many African countries
  • Having high rates of water contamination and pollution – even if there is access to water, contamination lessens the water quality for use and drinking (e.g. it might have bacteria or pathogens in it, or get waste regularly dumped in it)
  • Not having large renewable freshwater reserves – limits the total available amount of freshwater accessible to use or drink
  • Living in a rural area – rural areas generally have bigger access issues than urban areas
  • Population growth and overpopulation – places increased economic and logistical strain on water access


Effects Of Lack Of Access To Usable Freshwater, & Clean/Safe Drinking Water

Humans depend on freshwater for almost every major thing we do in our societies, with notable things being:

  • Drinking
  • Cleaning
  • Food Production and Agriculture
  • Industrial & Commercial Output (Business Activity)

On top of that, the animals and natural environment around us need clean water to survive and thrive.


When there is a lack of clean usable water or drinking water, the following effects can occur:

  • Poor Human Health – examples are malnutrition (not drinking enough water), and higher rates of the transmission of infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. This is particularly the case with contaminated water and when there is a lack of water for proper sanitation –
  • Higher Spending on Public Health – more water access or water quality related health problems means more of a government’s expenditure must go towards health when it could go to other things.
  • Death and Higher Mortality Rates – Particularly with children. The WHO estimates that in 2015, the deaths of 361,000 children under 5-years-old could have been avoided by addressing water and sanitation risk factors. – WHO/
  • Poverty and Lack of Economic Growth – water access and water quality related issues contribute to poverty because obviously people either can’t work at all, or can’t work productively. In addition, the freshwater supplies aren’t there to run and grow business and economic activity. It’s worth noting that in countries where people have to walk longer distances to get water, this cuts into time they could spend working and earning money. Women and children in particular spend 258 million hours every day worldwide collecting water. This is time spent not working, caring for family members or attending school. –
  • Lack of Sanitation and Hygienesanitation and hygiene depend on available clean water
  • Lack Of Safety – walking long distances to get water can increase the risk of being assaulted or harmed – especially for women and children
  • Lack Of Education – if children have to walk to get water for themselves and their families, they miss out on school to do this


Trends And Progress In Access To Improved Water Sources, & Drinking Water


  • Access to improved water sources is increasing across the world overall, rising from 76 percent of the global population in 1990 to 91 percent in 2015.
  • This marks significant progress since 1990 where most countries across Latin America, East and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa were often well below 90 percent.
  • In 1990, 1.26 billion people across the world did not have access to an improved drinking water source. By 2015, this had nearly halved to 666 million.
  • In 1990, 4 billion people had access to an improved water source; by 2015 this had increased to 6.7 billion. This means that over these 25 years the average increase of the number of people with access to improved drinking water was 107 million every year. These are on average 290,000 people who gained access to drinking water every single day.
  • In 1990 nearly 42 percent of those without access to an improved water source were in East Asia & the Pacific. By 2015, this had fallen to 20 percent. In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa was host to 22 percent of those without water access in 1990; by 2015 this had increased to nearly half of the global total.
  • The absolute number of people without access has fallen across all regions over this 25-year period with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to an improved water source has increased from 271 million to 326 million in 2015.
  • Access in current times remains lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa where rates typically range from 40 to 80 percent of households.
  • The share of rural households with improved water sources was lower than the total population in 2015, with 85 percent access. Gaining access to improved water sources can often require infrastructural investment and connection to municipal water networks; this is can be more challenging in rural areas hence we may expect access to be lower. Nonetheless, rural access has risen at a faster rate (based on the relative increase in the share of the population) than total access, increasing by 22 percent since 1990. –
  • Globally 97 percent of urban households had improved water access, with most nations now having close to 100 percent penetration.


Per, in 2018:

  • In 2015, 71% of the global population (5.2 billion people) used a safely managed drinking-water service – that is, one located on premises, available when needed, and free from contamination.
  • 89% of the global population (6.5 billion people) used at least a basic service. A basic service is an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes to collect water.
  • 844 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, including 159 million people who are dependent on surface water.
  • Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.
  • Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.
  • By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, 38% of health care facilities lack an improved water source, 19% do not have improved sanitation, and 35% lack water and soap for handwashing.


Also per

  • 1.3 billion people with basic services, meaning an improved water source located within a round trip of 30 minutes
  • 263 million people with limited services, or an improved water source requiring more than 30 minutes to collect water
  • 423 million people taking water from unprotected wells and springs
  • 159 million people collecting untreated surface water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.


Per WHO/UNICEF, via the In 2015:

  • 663 million people – one in 10 – still drank water from unprotected sources (a protected source protects against contamination, whereas an unprotected one doesn’t).
  • In 41 countries, a fifth of people drink water from a source that is not protected from contamination
  • In most countries, the majority of people spend less than 30 minutes collecting water, or have a piped supply within their home. But in some regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, many people spend more than 30 minutes – and some more than an hour – on each trip to collect water. This burden still falls mainly on women and girls – they are responsible for this task in eight in 10 households that don’t have a piped supply.
  • Mongolia is the only country where men and boys have primary responsibility for collecting water
  • In many parts of the world, water isn’t available all day everyday. In some provinces of South Africa, water supply in 60% of households has been interrupted for two days or more. In South Africa in 2014, a fifth of households with municipal piped water had interruptions that lasted for more than two days. This was three times higher in some regions of the country. Few countries have water available continuously, but in many parts of the world a less than 24-hour supply is still considered sufficient. Countries use a wide range of different measures to assess availability and these must match up so that comparisons of service levels can be made across countries and over time.
  • The cost of drinking water and sanitation is different in different countries – In Tanzania, 10% of the population spend more than 5% of their expenditure on drinking water


Countries & Places Without Access To Drinking Water

Access in 2015 remains lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa where rates typically range from 40 to 80 percent of households. 

The number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to an improved water source has increased from 271 million in 2990, to 326 million in 2015. 

To put these numbers in context, almost half of people drinking water from unprotected sources worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa, and eight in 10 live in rural areas.

East Asia and The Pacific make up 133 million, and South Asia also makes up 133 million. 



Countries With Water Pollution & Contamination Issues

Read more about water pollution and countries with water pollution issues in this guide 


Potential Solutions To Lack Of Clean Water, & Lack Of Drinking Water

Potential solution to manage and solve the water crisis might be:

  • Specifically provide aid and donations to low income countries and regions to help improve clean water access with infrastructure and water treatment technology
  • Aid, and investment in low income countries to help build them up economically so they can build and maintain clean water access equipment and technology
  • Reduce and better manage water pollution and contamination
  • Use water more efficiently at the household and business/commercial/industrial levels – particularly in high water stress countries
  • Better water management plans from the government level – particularly in high water stress countries
  • Adjust household, business and food production/agriculture activity in water stressed countries to activity that doesn’t use as much water e.g. switch to growing food that uses less water
  • Invest in freshwater supply technology (like desalination plants) – particularly in highly water stressed countries
  • Re-use of wastewater, to recover water, nutrients, or energy, is becoming an important strategy. Increasingly countries are using wastewater for irrigation – in developing countries this represents 7% of irrigated land. While this practice if done inappropriately poses health risks, safe management of wastewater can yield multiple benefits, including increased food production.
  • Invest more in low-cost techniques to test the quality of water people drink, especially for those who are not connected to regulated piped networks.


When looking at a water crisis solution, these notes can be considered:

  • Access to improved water sources generally increases with income of the country
  • Urban areas generally have better access to freshwater than rural areas
  • Agricultural water withdrawals tend to be higher at lower incomes
  • Globally, 70 percent of water withdrawals are used for agriculture. However, water requirements vary significantly depending on food type. Different foods have different water footprints
  • Different industries and sectors have different water footprints e.g. agriculture and textile industries are big water users



1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at Retrieved from: ‘’ [Online Resource]










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