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Freshwater: The Facts, Figures and Challenges

Freshwater: The Facts, Figures and Challenges Freshwater: The Facts, Figures and Challenges


Freshwater: The Facts, Figures and Challenges
September 2003

The United Nations have proclaimed 2003 the UN International Year of Freshwater (resolution 55/196). Freshwater in the global environment is of great significance due to its impact on health, poverty, economic development and social structure. Freshwater, safe sanitation and personal hygiene are deeply inter-related and have to be addressed in a cohesive way.

Freshwater Facts

  • Half the world's poor are sick from unsafe water and sanitation;
  • lack of water supply and sanitation deprives hundreds of millions of women of dignity, energy and time;
  • one third of the world lives in an environment of disease, smell and squalor;
  • hygiene related illness saps economic growth and costs billions of working days every year.

Water Scarcity

The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, states the 'Lack of access to water for drinking, hygiene, and food security inflicts enormous hardship on more than one billion members of the human family'. Therefore it is imperative that the issue is addressed.

The right of access to water is a fundamental human right. This right has been referred to in a number of international documents over the last 25 years and was specifically included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. The principle was reinforced that everyone, regardless of their location and economic circumstances, should be entitled to sufficient, safe and affordable freshwater and sanitation.

However, over 40% of the world's population are subject to severe water shortages. Freshwater access is a basic human need; therefore any such scarcity can cause a spectrum of problems.


The access to clean and safe freshwater has potent ramifications for the health of citizens worldwide. Water related diseases are an ever-growing human tragedy, killing more than 5 million people each year. It has been estimated that over one third of the world's population suffer from diseases which are directly linked to unclean water.

These water related diseases include diarrhoea which causes 6000 deaths every day, most of which are children under five. Malaria kills at an alarming rate of one million people every year and causes 300 million individual cases of illness. This illustrates that access to a safe freshwater supply and sanitation is a fundamental matter of life and death.


To achieve a better standard of health, adequate food supply and production are of fundamental importance. The task of producing food for the population needs to be balanced with sustainable usage of the freshwater supply.

It has been estimated that 700/0 of the world's fresh water is used for irrigation. Therefore any alterations to the way crops are planted, watered and harvested would have a significant effect on freshwater supply. There is a salient need for improved agricultural practices. Poor drainage and irrigation methods have led to water logging and 60% wastage. As the proportion of land in agricultural usage has increased by 12% since the 1960s, efficient usage of the freshwater supply is a paramount consideration.


Eco-systems are particularly vulnerable to scarcity in freshwater supply. The complex network of animals, plants and micro-organisms needs to achieve a balance to . function appropriately. However, human activities such as infrastructure development, over-harvesting and waste production have affected the delicate equilibrium of our eco-system.

In the United States of America 120 of the 822 freshwater fish species are considered to be threatened. And in Europe only 5 of the 55 main rivers are judged to be in an ecological pristine state. Since 1900 over 50% of the world's wetlands have been lost. Wetlands act as a natural sewage system, absorbing chemicals and filtering out pollutants. 300-400 million people live near wetlands and rely upon its sewage function. Consequently it appears that the irresponsible and unsustainable use of the freshwater supply may threaten our long-term dependency on the natural environment.


The need to protect the natural environment has to be balanced with the need for economic growth. Industry is a major user of freshwater resources and a significant foundation for economic development. It is acknowledged that industry, both on a domestic and global level, requires an adequate supply of freshwater to function and prosper.

The problem arises when industry mismanages the valuable supply of freshwater. Industry has an obligation to utilise freshwater supplies efficiently and effectively. It has been estimated that the annual water supply (measured in kilometre volume) used by industry will rise from 750 in 1995 to 1170 in 2025. It is therefore paramount that new technologies and practices are employed to encourage cleaner production.

The wastage created by industry is also a fundamental problem. Industry should accept the responsibility of managing waste created by the manufacturing and production process. In developing countries 70% of industrial wastage is dumped untreated into usable water. Therefore waste from industry has the potential to pollute the already scarce freshwater supply.


Economic reasoning also dictates that an increasing number of people move to urban areas to seek access to a higher quality of life. It is estimated that by the year 2030 approximately 5 billion people (60% of the world's population) will be residing in urban areas. This has important ramifications for the supply of freshwater.

Freshwater supply and sanitation facilities within cities differ according to location. Urban areas within developed nations possess a better infrastructure in comparison to urban areas in developing nations. The proportion of households in major cities connected to piped water is 1000/0 for North America in comparison with a mere 43% for Africa. The piped water available in these developing areas may be reduced by a further 40% due to leakage and neglect. This illustrates that many urban areas in developing nations lack basic facilities and infrastructure for providing freshwater.

The supply of clean and safe freshwater is vital for sanitation in the urban environment. The high density of people within cities that lack adequate sanitation facilities are breeding grounds for illness and diseases. In urban areas with inadequate freshwater supply, poor sanitation and bad hygiene practices, the infant mortality rate is 10-20 times the norm.

Due to the concentrated number of people in cities, groundwater supplies are accessed in many developing countries. This entails continuously digging deeper into the ground to supply freshwater to the ever-increasing urban population. It is estimated that 10% of global water consumption is derived from a groundwater source. Nevertheless it has been scientifically proven that the over-extraction of groundwater causes falling water tables, rising pumping costs, dry wetlands and the introduction of salt water into the water supply. This illustrates that the over-reliance on groundwater sources is not a sustainable practice and may not provide adequate freshwater supplies for future generations

Value of Freshwater

The inherent value of freshwater to present and future generations is a fundamental issue. Because of the rising demand for clean freshwater, the treatment of water as a commodity which should be sold at the market price has become a major theme of debate. This could lead to the most impoverished members of society being asked to pay impossibly high prices for essential supplies of freshwater.

There is a prevailing view that the charging of water should be subsidised by local authorities and water companies. Therefore the poorest people within the community should not be liable to pay unaffordable prices for freshwater. For example, in South Africa charging a household for freshwater only begins after basic needs have been supplied.

UN Freshwater Targets

The United Nations has set targets to encourage responsible management of freshwater. The Millennium Development Goals aim to halve the proportion of people without access to safe freshwater and sanitation by the year 2015.

UK Government

To reach the freshwater and sanitation targets, donors like the UK Government must achieve the 0.7% GNP target for official development assistance (the UK is currently at 0.34% GNP). An extra 8 billion are needed globally each year adequately to support freshwater and hygiene related programmes.

The UK Government must also encourage governments in developing nations to increase freshwater access, infrastructure and sanitation in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals. It must also show a tangible commitment to the freshwater and sanitation targets, which can be used as an example to other nations.

September 2003

Further Information

For more information on freshwater, sanitation and hygiene issues, visit the following websites:

Department for International Development

United Nations Association

UN Environment Programme

United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation


Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council

World Bank Group

updated: 23 August, 2019