If you’ve ever looked at a photograph of the Earth, you probably noticed the dark blue swirls of water that cover a majority of our planet’s surface. But did you know that only 1.2% of that water is drinkable?
Water is an essential part of life — we need it to drink, clean, bathe ourselves, and cook — but our limited water sources are being depleted due to pollution, over-abstraction, and climate change. What’s more, millions of people around the world are already experiencing the hazards that arise from unclean water, becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Low-income communities are at a higher risk of using unclean water because of limited access to water sources, and an increase in industrial and agricultural waste pollution in waterways. While wealthier individuals may be able to have their water treated or move to an area where water sources are not polluted, those living in poverty are forced to make do.
It often means walking long distances to gather water (that, in many cases, still isn’t safe to drink), and missing out on education or employment opportunities as a result. Meanwhile, continuing to use unclean water for drinking, cleaning, or sanitation purposes has devastating consequences on poorer communities.
Access to clean water is a human right, but one that many communities still don’t have in reality. To correct this, we have to first recognize the ways that clean (and unclean) water affects the world around us.
Here are 10 important facts about water and its potential to change the world that help highlight why we need to make sure everyone in the world can access clean water.
1. 80% of the wastewater we produce globally is disposed of untreated.
While middle- to high-income countries treat anywhere from 28-70% of wastewater produced, many lower-income nations lack the necessary resources to invest in water treatment services. As a result, only 8% of industrial and municipal wastewater undergoes treatment in low-income countries, exposing communities to harmful bacteria that can cause waterborne diseases like cholera and rotavirus.
Over 800 children under five years old die every day from these types of diseases, linked to unsafe water, sanitation, and poor hygiene.
2. 44% of household wastewater is not safely treated.
To reduce water waste, it’s possible to recycle used water through proper treatment practices and achieve a more sustainable economy.
When wastewater goes untreated, however, it can pollute clean water sources. That’s because household wastewater may contain bacteria from human waste and food scraps, in addition to poisonous chemicals from cleaning supplies.
3. Methane gas from untreated wastewater is 80 times more powerful than CO2 in warming the planet.
When food scraps, human waste, or other forms of organic matter decompose under water, they can generate methane gas. A powerful greenhouse gas, methane is responsible for at least 25% of today’s global warming.
4. 2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water at home.
Because of improper sanitation practices and a lack of water treatment services, 1 in 4 people around the world lack access to clean drinking water. As a result, those living in poorer communities must travel long distances to collect clean water, or else be exposed to harmful bacteria found in unclean water.
5. Unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined.
Unsafe water leads to waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio, and exacerbates malnutrition in children.
Due to bacteria and toxic chemicals found in water sources, unclean water is responsible for 1.2 million deaths each year.
6. Landfills and wastewater account for 20% of global methane emissions.
Because methane gas is produced from organic decomposition, landfills and wastewater are responsible for high levels of methane seeping into our atmosphere and exacerbating global warming. Experts state that emissions of methane gas from landfills and wastewater are an even bigger issue than those emitted from oil and gas operations.
7. In India, over 50% of rural women spend 35 minutes a day getting water.
That’s equivalent to the loss of 27 days’ wages over a year. When those in low-income communities lack access to clean water sources, their only options are to drink contaminated water or travel long distances to find safe drinking water.
Women and children are responsible for collecting clean water in communities around the world, which has led them to forgo wages or days at school. In drought-affected areas, school dropout rates increase by 22% when children are required to spend their days collecting water.
8. Over half of the global population does not have access to safe sanitation.
Basic sanitation is defined as having access to waste disposal facilities in order to maintain hygienic conditions. Currently, over 4 billion people cannot maintain hygienic conditions because they lack access to toilets, garbage collection services, and clean water.
9. Every day, 2 million tons of sewage, industrial, and agricultural waste drain into the world's waterways.
When communities lack access to proper waste management services, trash and human waste contaminate our natural environment. In addition to causing high levels of methane gas to seep into our atmosphere, sewage, industrial, and agricultural waste is finding its way into water sources and polluting the drinking water that many communities rely on.
10. At least 1.8 million children under 5 die every year from water-related diseases — or one every 20 seconds.
Due to waste contamination and a lack of access to clean water sources, low-income communities are often exposed to unclean water.
Polluted water contains harmful bacteria and poisonous chemicals that can have deadly consequences, particularly for young children and those suffering from malnutrition. As a result, 1.8 million children under the age of five years old die every year from waterborne diseases that arise from unclean water.
While these facts are certainly shocking, the main takeaways you should have from this list are that water affects every part of the world and every aspect of our lives — and clean water can both save lives and help protect the planet.
By improving access to clean water globally, we can tackle diseases and improve health, combat the causes of climate change, help ensure equal access to education and employment opportunities (particularly for women), and make progress in our fight to end extreme poverty. Join the movement and take action now.