Access to drinking water around the world, in five infographics

Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

How many people have access to clean and safe water? Where do they get it from, and how much do they pay for it? A new report by the World Health Organisation/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme delves into data on drinking water from the last 17 years to give a detailed view of the state of access to drinking water today.

It also examines how the current situation matches up to the vision for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water – set out by the sustainable development goals (SDGs). It considers gaps in the data and what we still need to know to achieve universal access.

1 | Billions of people have gained access to water, but huge inequalities remain

Since 1990, 2.6 billion people have gained access to an “improved” drinking water source, one that is designed to protect against contamination. But in 2015, 663 million people – one in 10 – still drank water from unprotected sources. Huge inequalities persist between and within countries; almost half of people drinking water from unprotected sources live in sub-Saharan Africa, eight in 10 live in rural areas, and there are large gaps between the richest and the poorest.

In 41 countries, a fifth of people drink water from a source that is not protected from contamination

The percentage of populations using an unimproved drinking water source in 2015.
Photograph: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) aim to achieve access for everyone, but we need more and better data on drinking water to ensure no one is left behind.

2 | Collecting water is still a major burden, especially in sub-Saharan Africa

In most countries, the majority of people spend less than 30 minutes collecting water, or have a piped supply within their home. But in some regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, many people spend more than 30 minutes – and some more than an hour – on each trip to collect water. This burden still falls mainly on women and girls – they are responsible for this task in eight in 10 households that don’t have a piped supply.

Mongolia is the only country where men and boys have primary responsibility for collecting water

Who has primary responsibility for collecting water in rural areas? This graph details where the burden falls, by gender and age, in countries where at least 1 in 10 households have water off-premises.
Photograph: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

Reducing collection times and increasing the number of people who have water sources within their home will be crucial in achieving other goals related to poverty, health, education and gender equality.

3 | In many parts of the world water is not available all day, every day

In many countries, households are asked whether their supply of water meets their needs, or for how many hours water is available each day. Existing data shows this availability varies widely between and within countries.

In some provinces of South Africa, water supply in 60% of households has been interrupted for two days or more

Population reporting interruptions in municipal piped supplies for at least two full days, South Africa, 2009–2014 (%)
Photograph: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

In South Africa in 2014, a fifth of households with municipal piped water had interruptions that lasted for more than two days. This was three times higher in some regions of the country. Few countries have water available continuously, but in many parts of the world a less than 24-hour supply is still considered sufficient. Countries use a wide range of different measures to assess availability and these must match up so that comparisons of service levels can be made across countries and over time.

4 | Some sources protect against contamination, but it still might not be safe to drink the water

To be considered “safe”, a source of drinking water must be free from pathogens and high levels of harmful substances. Globally, the main health concern is faecal contamination, which is identified by the presence of bacteria such as E.coli. In many places, a water point is designed to protect against contamination, but the water from it might still have traces of E.coli – the groundwater may be contaminated by faulty latrines, or the containers people use to carry and store water may contain traces of the bacteria.

In Nepal, 91% of the population drink from an improved water source, but E.coli has still been detected

Coverage of improved drinking water sources and proportion of improved sources free from faecal contamination (%)
Photograph: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

We need to invest more in low-cost techniques to test the quality of water people drink, especially for those who are not connected to regulated piped networks.

5 | People spend different amounts on water, but we don’t know what they think is affordable

Thanks to income and spending surveys, we know what people pay for water and sanitation varies from country to country. Data do not always capture the full costs of such services, such as the price to drill a borehole or get a household connection in the first place. We don’t know if paying for water and sanitation will prevent people from getting access to them in the first place, or whether people think the amount they pay already is affordable.

In Tanzania, 10% of the population spend more than 5% of their expenditure on drinking water

Proportion of household expenditure on water services, by country (%)
Photograph: WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme

Recording and comparing spending will be an important step towards working out whether drinking water services are affordable.