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World Water Day - factsheet

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World Water Day


What is water?

Water is essential for all of the Earth’s living ecosystems, for human development and for food production. While the quantity of water on our planet is always the same and while there is technically enough water to meet our needs, water is a scare resource in many places and the water that is available is often polluted and unsafe.

Water is vital to our planet. It covers two-thirds of our planet. But approximately 97% is saltwater and 2% is frozen; only 1% is freshwater, which is what humans need.

All living organisms on this planet contain water: approximately 60% of the human body is composed of water. In a fish water represents 80%. In plants it represents between 80 and 90%.

In order to survive, humans need 20 to 50 litres of clean water free from harmful contaminants every day to ensure their basic needs for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Who has access to water?

While the number of people with access to clean water has doubled in the last 20 years – not least due to the UN’s efforts, 780 million people, or roughly one in ten people in the world, still do not have access to safe water. Almost 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation. Sanitation is the safe disposal of human waste, which can require large amounts of water.

In the UK water is part of our everyday lives, from drinking it and using it to cook, to washing our clothes and brushing our teeth. Ready access to water often means that it is taken for granted and used unsparingly. We in the UK are now using almost 50 percent more water than 25 years ago, but our current consumption level is not sustainable in the long-term.

  • Each person in the UK uses 150 litres of water a day, with the average family using 500 litres a day. This takes into account cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing.
  • Toilet flushing accounts for 30% of our daily water use
  • A running tap uses 6 litres of water a minute, a shower can use anywhere between 9 – 45 litres per minute, a hosepipe uses as much as 1000 litres per hour.

Why do we have water shortages?

Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people worldwide. The number of people affected is set to increase as most of the expected global population growth is will take place in regions already experiencing water stress.

Singapore, Qatar and Malta are among the world’s most water-stressed countries according to the World Resources Institute. A lack of any freshwater lakes of aquifers has forced Singapore to invest heavily in the management of its water resources and technology such rainwater capture systems which now contribute 20 percent of the country’s water supply.

Other countries, while sometimes ample in water resources, suffer from water stress as they lack the finances and other capabilities needed to ensure a sustainable management system. Pakistan which is home to the Indus River Basis is experiencing a range of pressures on its water resources. Already home to 180 million people, the population is growing by 2.05 percent per year and it is expected to be the fourth most populous country on earth by 2050. A growing population requires feeding and 90 percent of Pakistan’s water is allocated to the agricultural sector, leaving only 10 percent for human consumption and sanitation according to a report from The Wilson Centre, a US-based Think Tank. Civil conflict, including the fight against the Pakistan Taliban has added to the country’s water woes as more thantwo million people have been displaced as a result of fighting between government forces and militants.

Clearly, managing our water resources is complex. Countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth often experience great pressure on water resources as expanding agricultural and industrial sectors require ever more water for their growing output. Pollution and lack of treatment of wastewater also have a major impact on water quality.

  • 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals are used for irrigation
  • Meat production requires 8-10 times more water than cereal production
  • Over 80 per cent of wastewater worldwide is not collected or treated, and urban settlements are the main source of pollution.

What are the impacts of water shortages?

Lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation can cause illness and death, it also an impediment to economic growth and human development.

  • 600,000 children dying in each year  from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation - that's 1,400 children under five every day, making diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children under five years old worldwide
  • At any given time, nearly half the people in the developing world are suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with dirty water and inadequate sanitation such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis.
  • In major emergencies, the two most deadly health risks are insufficient or unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, which cause disease outbreaks.

However, water and sanitation-related diseases are preventable. A coordinated approach, combining political will with resources and education, can bring about improvements, but this also requires people to change their behaviour and understand the health benefits that comes with improved hygiene practices; simply washing hands with soap can for example reduce the risk of diarrhoea by 50 percent.

What is the UN doing?

International cooperation and investment have resulted in improvements to access to safe drinking water in many regions of the world. Perhaps the most prominent global effort is the Millennium Development Goals initiative – the UN’s largest anti-poverty campaign. The Goals are a set of targets that governments around the world have pledged to achieve by 2015.

One of the targets is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water. This target was met in 2010, five years before schedule. But we are still only half-way towards universal access. Progress on target to halve the proportion living without sanitation by 2015, meanwhile, is running 150 years behind schedule, with devastating health impacts.

As a result, water and sanitation will remain high priorities for the UN and will continue to be key feature of all its development programmes.

  • According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is the most cost effective of all health interventions.
  • UNICEF – UN’s Children’s Fund is one of several UN organisations which are working with national governments and local communities to improving safe water and sanitation access and provide education and information about improved hygiene.
  • In Afghanistan UNICEF has supported more than one million students through the construction of water and toilet facilities in more than 1,300 schools in the country. It has built separate toilets for boys and girls and sanitary incinerators – an improvement that has proven critical to keeping girls in school all over the world.


Photo: A worker organises bottles of drinking water donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) for distribution to the victims of  the tropical storm "Hanna". (UN Photo/Logan Abassi)