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UN: 2.2 billion people have no access to clean water

March 22, 2024

Almost 3.5 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation and one in two globally suffer from water scarcity for several months a year, a UN report says. It adds that disputes over access could fuel conflict.

Dry landscape in Atsibi village in Ethiopia that has been affected by drought
Low- and middle-income countries are the worst affected by water scarcityImage: Million Haileselassie Brhane/DW

Increasing water scarcity could fuel conflicts across the globe, the United Nations' World Water Report 2023 said on Friday.

The annual report, commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was released on World Water Day.

"Climate change, wars, conflicts, and other crises are exacerbating this already unequal access to water,” Ulla Burchardt, board member for the German UNESCO Commission, said.

Poorest worst affected

Globally, 2.2 billion people have no access to clean water while 3.5 billion people are forced to manage daily without hygienic sanitation, according to the report.

One in two people around the world are suffering from water scarcity for several months of the year, it found.

"In some parts of the world, this water scarcity has become the rule, rather than the exception," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said.

"We know the consequences of such a situation: water shortages not only fan the flames of geopolitical tensions but also pose a threat to fundamental rights as a whole, for example by considerably undermining the position of girls and women."

Sustainability goals failing

Although agriculture uses more than two-thirds of the water worldwide, the competition for water resources comes primarily from industry and urban households.

The report cited the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals from 2016 or achieving universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene in 140 low- and middle-income countries, estimating that it would cost approximately $1.7 trillion (€1.5 trillion) from 2016 to 2030, or $114 billion (€105.4 billion) per year.

"The global community has set ambitious goals, including for the human right to water and sanitation," Burchardt added. "From today's perspective, however, the sustainability goals for water and sanitation have failed."

Development assistance declining

Worldwide, official development assistance disbursements to the water sector suffered a 15% decline between 2015 and 2021 — from $ 9.6 billion (€8.9 billion) to $8.1 billion (€7.5 billion).

UN holds conference on global water scarcity

For example, more than 85% of countries (105 of 123 that responded) had participation procedures defined within laws or policies regarding clean drinking water and water resource management in rural areas.

However, only 29 of 117 of responding nations reported high or very high participation of the targeted communities in the planning and management of the process to achieve clean drinking water and resources management. 

Friday's annual report which marks World Water Day yearly, has a focus for 2023 on the theme of "Water for Prosperity and Peace."

"The theme of World Water Day 2024 is therefore a call to action — to sustainably manage water, to reconnect with our planet and, ultimately, to build peace," Azoulay said.

km/rc (dpa/epd/UNESCO report)