Water and Development: Key Issues

Water is crucial for life on Planet Earth. Every human being needs water daily to keep healthy. In advanced countries, water flows from the tap 24 hours a day and is treated and tested for being safe for humans to use. To be sure, there are areas and periods when water has been scarce, for example in the UK watering the garden has occasionally been limited. Even so, safe water for human consumption is always safeguarded, and we don’t pay much attention to it. We take water for granted which is why water and development is such an important topic.

For vast numbers of people in the world this is not the case. In fact, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water altogether. That is about 12 times the population of UK. These people live in developing countries where infrastructure is inadequate and public networks are unable to provide enough water for everyone. Lacking access means not having a house tap, or not having a place from which to fetch safe water – for example a public standpipe – even at a reasonable distance outside the home. Obviously these people do not stop consuming water – they could not, since water is an essential part of the everyday life of all human beings. They will just go through greater pains in getting their daily water needs met.

So what do people do when they do not have a house tap? If they live in urban areas, they can get water from somebody else’s tap, from a public source such as a standpipe, or buy water from a vendor such as a tank operator who will deliver the water to their homes. Acquiring water this way is much more expensive than water in the tap, because the secondary vendors will charge a higher price in order to make a profit. In addition, secondary vendors are often not regulated for water quality so there is no guarantee that their water is safe to drink.

If the people live in rural areas, their situation is even more serious. There is far less infrastructure in place to begin with. Many people fetch water from unsafe surface water sources such as rivers and ponds. People walk long distances carrying heavy water containers every day, and suffer from various illnesses – or even die – due to contamination of their water sources. And all this because of lacking access to this self-evident liquid we get through our taps every day!

Lack of safe water has implications for development more broadly. When people have to spend a lot of time fetching water or fall sick from drinking dirty water, they will not be able to do productive work or go to school. This will affect their personal incomes, education levels, and life opportunities as well as those of the economy and society as a whole. Providing safe water is therefore a key strategy and an example of how one essential service can make a huge difference for a country’s development in the long term.

UNICEF and World Health Organization 2012. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2012 Update. Available at: Unicef Report.

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