Access to drinking water has been one of the biggest successes of the Millennium Development Goals, UNICEF said ahead of World Water Day, but for 748 million people around the world, just obtaining this essential service remains a challenge.

Young girls and women in many parts of the world have to trek long distances daily to fetch clean drinking  water. Photo: Reuters

Young girls and women in many parts of the world have to trek long distances daily to fetch clean drinking water. Photo: Reuters

“The story of access to drinking water since 1990 has been one of tremendous progress in the face of incredible odds,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programmes. “But there is more to do. Water is the very essence of life and yet three-quarters of a billion people – mostly the poor and the marginalized – still today are deprived of this most basic human right.”

Some 2.3 billion people have gained access to improved sources of drinking water since 1990. As a result, the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the percentage of the global population without access at that date was reached five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. There are now only three countries – Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – where more than half the population do not have improved drinking water.

But, despite this progress, significant disparities persist. Of the 748 million people globally still without access, 90 per cent live in rural areas, and are being left behind in their countries’ progress.

For children, lack of access to safe water can be tragic. On average, nearly 1,000 of them die every day from diarrhoeal diseases linked to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, or poor hygiene.

For women and girls, collecting water cuts into time they can spend caring for families and studying. In insecure areas, it also puts them at risk of violence and attack. UNICEF estimates that in Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year just walking to collect water.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the lowest coverage in 1990, has been gaining access to drinking water at the rate of 50,000 people per day since the year 2000. Nevertheless, the region still accounts for more than 2 out of 5 of those without access globally – or 325 million people.

Another region of concern is Oceania, which has made only limited progress since 1990. Large numbers of people without access also live in China (112 million) and India (92 million).

Working with governments and partners UNICEF is pushing for innovative and cost effective methods to make progress.

On World Water Day occassion, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said: “This year, as the UN prepares to adopt a new post-2015 sustainable development agenda in September, World Water Day highlights the essential and interconnected role of water.  We rely on water for public health and equitable progress, it is essential for food and energy security, and it underpins the functioning of industries”.

He told: “The onset of climate change, growing demand on finite water resources from agriculture, industry and cities, and increasing pollution in many areas are hastening a water crisis that can only be addressed by cross-sectoral, holistic planning and policies – internationally, regionally and globally”.

“Among the most urgent issues are access to safe drinking water and sanitation.  Despite progress under the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, some 750 million people — more than one in ten of the world’s population — remain without access to an improved water supply.  Women and children, in particular, are affected by this lack, as not only is their health compromised, but considerable hours are wasted in the unproductive – and sometimes dangerous – business of collecting water” UN Secretary General adds.

Residents crowd for water at the only standpipe in Mabella slum in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown. Photo: Katrina Manson/Reuters

Residents crowd for water at the only standpipe in Mabella slum in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown. Photo: Katrina Manson/Reuters

 While continuing his speech he said: “Our sustainable future is also jeopardized by climate change, which is why United Nations Member States are working hard towards a meaningful, universal climate agreement this December in Paris.  Over the coming years, greenhouse gas emissions will have to significantly decline in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, which include changed weather patterns and the threat of water scarcity in large parts of the world”.

 Mr. Ban Ki Moon affirms: “To address the many challenges related to water, we must work in a spirit of urgent cooperation, open to new ideas and innovation, and prepared to share the solutions that we all need for a sustainable future.  If we do so, we can end poverty, promote global prosperity and well-being, protect the environment and withstand the threat of climate change”.