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November 18, 2018

The Third World’s Drinking Problem

During its recent gathering in Davos, the World Economic Forum released its ninth annual Global Risks report. Perhaps most remarkable, four of the ten threats listed this year are water-related.

These risks include water crises stemming from droughts and floods, the deterioration of water quality, and poor water management; failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change; higher incidence of extreme weather events; and food crises, driven at least partly by water shortages. But the report fails to highlight the most pressing water-related concern: ensuring enough potable water. Moreover, while international organisations recognise the problem, their approach to addressing it is entirely wrong.

In 2012, the United Nations announced that the Millennium Development Goals’ target of halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water had been achieved well ahead of schedule, with only 783 million people still lacking access to clean water. But the Third World Center for Water Management estimates that at least three billion people worldwide still drink water of dubious quality. AquaFed, which represents private water companies, puts this figure at 3.4 billion – nearly half the world’s population. This suggests that the UN’s declaration of victory was premature, to say the least.

There is no shortage of evidence. In 2011, more than half of China’s largest lakes and rivers were deemed unfit for human consumption. Last year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection admitted that “toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking-water supplies and even leading to severe health and social problems, such as ‘cancer villages.’”

India’s situation is not much better – nearly half of the country’s 445 rivers are too polluted in terms of biochemical oxygen demand and coliform bacteria to be safely consumed. If other pollutants – such as nitrates, fluorides, pesticides, and heavy metals – were considered, the figure would be significantly higher.

Likewise, Pakistan’s National Assembly was informed last year that 72 per cent of samples collected from the country’s water-delivery systems were unfit for human consumption. In Nepal, 85 per cent of its traditional water-supply systems are seriously contaminated with bacteria, iron, manganese, and ammonia. Meanwhile, in Mexico, 90 per cent of the country’s nearly 25,000 water utilities were operating in a state of bankruptcy in 2013.

The problem with international organisations’ approach is that they conflate the vague notion of “improved water sources” with genuinely clean, safe drinking water. In the same way, they have diluted the goal of “improved sanitation” – the process of collecting, treating, and safely discharging wastewater – by applying it to indoor toilets in people’s homes.

This glosses over a major discrepancy between sanitation and adequate wastewater management.

The Third World Center for Water Management estimates that only about 10-12 per cent of domestic and industrial wastewater produced in Latin America is properly managed. The situation is probably very similar in developing countries in Asia, and likely worse in Africa.

In 2011, a survey indicated that only 160 of 8,000 Indian towns had both a sewerage system and a sewage-treatment plant. Furthermore, most government-owned sewage plants are non-functional or closed most of the time, owing to bad management, poor maintenance, faulty design, lack of regular electricity supply, and absent, untrained, or uncaring employees.

The world’s water and sanitation challenges are by no means insurmountable. Resolving them will require sustained political will, with governments building strong water institutions and ensuring that public funds are used as effectively as possible. At the same time, the public must recognize that they can have better water services, if they are willing to contribute through taxes, tariffs, and transfers.

For their part, the media must stress the benefits of functional water-delivery and wastewater-management systems – and hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable if they fail to do their part. Finally, water professionals need to shift their focus from providing more water to providing better water more sustainably.

Given that failing to address the water challenge would, within a generation, bring about a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, such efforts could not be more urgent.


Asit K Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of the Third World Center for Water Management. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, chairs the Water Resources Group.

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