World Water Crisis

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World Water Crisis

United Nations World Water Assessment Program


By: Issouf Sanogo

Date: July 5, 2005

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Issouf Sanogo photographs news and sport events in Africa, and has been a contributor for over five years to Agence France Presse, a worldwide news agency headquartered in Paris.


Lack of access to clean water has many consequences; one of the most important is the impact on human health. People need access to between five and eight gallons (about twenty-to-fifty liters) of clean water per day for drinking, cooking, and washing. At present, a child born in the developed world consumes thirty to fifty times as much water resources as one in the developing world—an inequity which, ultimately, has an adverse affect on both societies—as this is a global, rather than national, issue.

The United Nations World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) is a project seeking a better understanding of processes and policies that will improve the supply and quality of freshwater resources around the globe. WWAP's goals include assessment of the world's freshwater resources and ecosystems and identification of critical issues and problems.

WWAP was set up in 2000 in recognition that only an integrated approach can help solve the global water crisis. The program works across all relevant UN agencies and in partnership with national governments and has emerged from discussions at various milestone meetings on environment and development, such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Since then, there has been a growing recognition that lack of access to clean water is threatening the stability, security and environmental sustainability of the developing nations and this has resulted in a number of specific targets for action. For example, the United Nations Millennium Declaration calls for a reduction by half in the number who do not have sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015.



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The first challenge of the WWDR is improving access to a safe water supply. Water causes disease when it is contaminated by microorganisms, chemicals, and parasites. Lack of sanitation and basic hygiene compounds these problems. The numbers of illnesses caused by contaminated water are many, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has singled out diarrheal diseases, malaria, and shistosomiasis (also known as bilharziasis) as being particularly worrying. Each day, diarrheal disease (including cholera) kills more than 6,000 children around the world. Most of this could be prevented, for almost 90 percent of cases are linked to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene.

Malaria claims over one million lives a year. The mosquitoes which carry the malaria parasite breed in stagnant water and the disease has been linked to poorly managed water projects such as irrigation and dam building. As many as 500 million people are at risk of schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease causing blindness. Lack of clean water for washing the face is a major factor in schistosomiasis. Meanwhile, between twenty-eight and thirty-two million people in Bangladesh are exposed to drinking water with toxic levels of arsenic. In China, twenty-six million people have tooth problems, and one million have bone problems, because there is too much fluoride in their drinking water.

WHO has complied figures that reveal the scale of the water crisis. Nearly one person in five, 1.1 billion people, living in the world today does not have access to safe water, and nearly two thirds of these people live in Asia. Nearly half the world's population does not have access to adequate sanitation. In the last decade, almost two billion people were affected by floods and droughts that threatened the water supply. Each time there is a natural disaster, warnings about the spread of disease are generally issued within a few days. Prompt planning and action to safeguard water in these situations is essential.

The WWAP seeks to address the water crisis, and its health implications, through many actions: assessment of the scale of the problem, looking at practices for water management that work, and disseminating these through national governments through education and training. It has carried out sixteen detailed case studies in Senegal, France, Thailand, Peru, and elsewhere to gain a more thorough understanding of key aspects of water management.

The second UN World Water Development Report is scheduled to be published in 2006–2007. Preliminary reports state that many countries are still not on track to meet the millennium goal of improving access to safe water. Meanwhile, water pollution and destruction of ecosystems continue to increase. However, the report offers the most comprehensive survey ever of the state of the world's freshwater and present many examples of best practices that can help governments and people manage their most precious resource—water.



United Nations/World Water Assessment Programme. UN World Water Development Report: Water for People, Water for Life. Paris, New York, and Oxford: UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and Berghahn Books, 2003.

Web sites

UNESCO. "World Water Assessment Programme." 〈〉 (accessed February 3, 2006).

World Health Organization. "Water-Related Disease." 〈〉 (accessed February 3, 2006).