Global water crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

There’s nothing more essential to life on Earth than water and our ability to overcome water scarcity. From Central Australia to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia’s teeming megacities, water is scarce. People are struggling to access the clean water they need for drinking, cooking, bathing, hand-washing, and growing their food.

What is water scarcity?

Water scarcity is defined as a water deficiency or a lack of safe water supplies. As the population of the world grows and the environment becomes further affected by climate change, access to fresh drinking water dwindles.

Globally, 785 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Every day, over 800 children die from dirty water, due to diarrhea caused by poor water, sanitation, and hygiene and scarce or unreliable water and sanitation facilities in many communities around the world.

The impacts of water scarcity affect families and their communities. Without clean, easily accessible water, they can become locked in poverty for generations. Children drop out of school and parents struggle to make a living.

Women and children are worst affected – children because they are more vulnerable to diseases of dirty water and women and girls because they often bear the burden of carrying water for their families for an estimated 200 million hours each day.

Access to clean water changes everything; it’s a stepping stone to development. When people gain access to clean water, they are better able to practice good hygiene and sanitation.

Children enjoy good health and are more likely to attend school. Parents put aside their worries about water-related diseases and lack of access to clean water. Instead, they can focus on watering their crops and livestock and diversifying their incomes.

water system in Honduras to alleviate water scarcity

Johanna, 23, holds her son David, five, so he can wash his face and drink clean water flowing from one of the taps in the Jamastran Valley of Honduras. The water system was built by the community with support from World Vision.

Facts of the Global water crisis

The 1700s to 1800s: Industrialisation leads to increased urbanization in England, highlighting the need for clean water supplies and sanitation.

The 1800s: Water shortages first appear in historical records.

1854: Dr. John Snow discovers the link between water and the spread of cholera during an outbreak in London.

The 1900s: Since 1900, more than 11 billion people have died from drought, and drought has affected more than one billion people.

1993: The U.N. General Assembly designates March 22 as World Water Day.

2000: The U.N. member states set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for development progress, including a 2015 target to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

2003: UN-Water was founded as a coordinating platform for issues of sanitation and freshwater access.

2005: Thirty-five percent of the global population experiences chronic water shortages, up from nine percent in 1960.

2005 to 2015: UN member states prioritize water and sanitation development in an International Decade for Action called “Water for Life”.

2008: The UN-recognised International Year of Sanitation prioritizes health and dignity.

2010: The MDG’s clean water access target is achieved five years ahead of schedule. More than two billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990. The UN General Assembly recognizes the right of each person to have adequate supplies of water for personal and domestic use that are physically accessible, equitably distributed, safe, and affordable.

2013: The UN designates 19 November as World Toilet Day to highlight the global issue of billions of people left without access to proper sanitation.

2015: About 2.6 billion people have gained access to clean water in the last 25 years, and about 1.4 billion gained basic access to sanitation since 2000. The UN member states sign on to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – successors to the MDGs that promise clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.

2018: Worldwide, 2.1 billion people still live without safe drinking water in their homes and more than one billion people still have no choice but to defecate outside.

Our work towards a solution

World Vision is the leading humanitarian provider of clean drinking water in the developing world. We focus on bringing water to the extremely poor — including those with disabilities — in rural areas with the greatest disease burden.

In 2018, more than 4 million people were reached with clean water through World Vision’s projects. That’s one new person every 10 seconds.

More than 700 World Vision water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals and thousands of development professionals live and work in communities worldwide to co-create solutions that last.

World Vision fights against the water crisis to keep the water flowing. We invest an average of 15 years in a community, cultivating local ownership and training locals to manage and maintain water points.

An independent study by The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, one of the premier academic groups in water research, examined 1,470 water sources in 520 communities located in the Greater Afram Plains region of Ghana. Their report, published in 2015, showed that nearly 80 percent of wells drilled by World Vision continued to function at high levels even after 20 years, thanks largely to our community engagement model.

World Vision believes we can solve the world water crisis within our lifetimes. Our efforts include:

  • drilling, developing, and repairing wells and other vital water points;
  • teaching local community members how to keep water flowing;
  • overseeing the building of latrines and hand-washing facilities; and
  • promoting healthy hygiene practices through education and behaviour change programming.
Water pump for irrigation in Kenya to alleviate the existing water crisis

In Kenya, Margaret, 45, operates a pedal pump to irrigate her field with help from Isaac. Their community benefits from a borehole, pipeline, and water kiosk system World Vision installed in 2013. Before the water system, she made a meager living by farming a half-acre field; now she grows lush crops on six acres.

Timeline of World Vision’s water projects

The 1960s: World Vision begins small water projects.

The 1980s: Severe droughts in Africa focus the world’s attention on the urgent need for water.

  • 1985: World Vision begins water drilling projects in Ghana.

The 1990s: World Vision increases commitment to clean water.

  • 1990: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation partners in the Ghana water effort.

The 2000s: World Vision scales up water work to combat increasing water scarcity issues.

  • 2003: West Africa Water Initiative extends drilling into Mali and Niger.
  • 2005: West Africa’s 2,000th well is drilled in Ghana.
  • 2006: Large-scale water work begins in Ethiopia.
  • 2011: World Vision begins intentional scale-up of water and sanitation activities in 10 countries in Africa. Numbers of clean water beneficiaries increase 20-fold when comparing 2010 to 2016.
  • 2012: Drilling begins in Honduras.
  • 2013: Drilling begins in India. World Vision and Procter & Gamble (P&G) partnership reaches milestone of one billion litres of purified water delivered to developing nations.
  • 2014: University of North Carolina study reveals nearly 80 percent of World Vision wells in Ghana function at high levels, even after 20 years. 1,000th productive well is drilled in Mali. In December, the US Congress passes Water for the World Act, prioritising the provision of clean water and sanitation for the world’s most vulnerable people. World Vision starts reaching one person every 30 seconds with clean water.
  • 2016: World Vision expands WASH work into more countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, along with the Middle East. We reach 4.6 million new people with clean water.
  • 2017: World Vision now reaches one new person every 10 seconds with clean water.
  • 2018 to 2030: World Vision sets ambitious goals for global water work. One objective is to serve 20 million new people with clean water and sanitation by 2020 and 50 million people by 2030. 

Learn more about World Vision’s water work.

A sprinkler irrigation system in Rwanda rotates among farmers’ plots so all the farmers’ crops are watered.

A sprinkler irrigation system in Rwanda rotates among farmers’ plots so all the farmers’ crops are watered. World Vision provided the water system and established a water users’ association for farmers.

FAQs: What you need to know about the global water crisis

Explore frequently asked questions about water, sanitation, and hygiene and learn how you can help children and families who lack clean water.

Fast facts: Global water crisis

  • 780 million people lack basic drinking water access, more than one of every 10 people on the planet.
  • Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours hauling water every day.
  • The average woman in rural Africa walks six kilometres every day to haul 18kgs of water.
  • Every day, more than 800 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea attributed to poor water and sanitation.
  • 2.3 billion people live without access to basic sanitation.
  • 1 billion people practice open defecation.
  • 90 percent of all natural disasters are water-related.

Back to questions

How can I help end the global water crisis?

Clean, fresh water is essential to life. You can help bring clean water to families in need as a supporter of World Vision. Over the last five years, we reached more than 14 million people with clean water. Our goals for the future are even more ambitious, but achievable, with your help.

Donating to World Vision’s water projects help bring us closer to ending the global water crisis. Here’s how.

Getting access up and running

Your donations help to improve access to sanitation through the use of wells, boreholes, water tanks, toilets, taps and sewage infrastructure. To enable long-term success, we provide vital education about sanitation and hygiene in order to empower communities to advocate for, build and maintain their own facilities and infrastructure.

Mobilising communities for lasting change
  • The spread of disease is preventable. We create lasting impact by empowering households to take the initiative to build, use and maintain toilets. We help to provide awareness and understanding so that communities can propel themselves into action.Natural leaders can emerge as they collectively decide how to create a more hygienic and safe environment. When communities design and drive their own locally-appropriate initiatives, there is greater ownership and sustainability.
Creating a clean start for children
  • The first 1,000 days of life for a child are crucial to their overall health. During early childhood, we integrate our water, sanitation and hygiene work with nutrition, early childhood development and maternal, newborn and child health. This is far more effective than addressing any of these areas in isolation.

Back to questions

Children in Zambia learn about clean water, sanitation, water hygiene crisis, and global water with Sesame Street Muppets.

Children in Zambia meet Raya, a Sesame Street Muppet, who introduces kids to things they need to know about clean water. Sesame Street and World Vision are working together to help end the global water, sanitation, and hygiene crisis.

What are the benefits of water, sanitation and hygiene for children and families?

Clean water, combined with basic sanitation and hygiene education, is one of the most effective ways to improve lives and fight extreme poverty. Here are a few benefits:

  • Families become healthier: Water, sanitation and hygiene programs work together to powerfully prevent the spread of most illnesses, and are one of the most effective ways to reduce child deaths.
  • Children are better nourished: Safe water, sanitation and hygiene help kids grow taller, smarter, and stronger. They get more nutrition from the food they eat because they are not sick. Families are able to use water to irrigate gardens for more nutritious food year-round.
  • Children can attend and excel in school: When children don’t have to walk long distances to get water, they have more time to attend school and more energy to learn. This is especially important for girls, who most often collect water for the family.
  • Family income improves: Families spend less money on healthcare and are better able to pay for things like school supplies and fees. Water can also be used for income-generating activities like making soap, bricks and shea butter, as well as watering livestock and gardens.

Back to questions

Why do you combine clean water with sanitation and hygiene? What is WASH?

Providing hygiene education and sanitation facilities, such as toilets and hand-washing stations, multiplies the health benefits of clean water by helping to reduce the spread of illness and disease.

In fact, hand-washing alone has been shown to result in children growing taller, stronger and smarter. So intertwined are the issues of water, sanitation and hygiene that they have been combined into one sector known in the global aid community as WASH.

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How are women and girls affected by lack of clean water?

Women and girls bear the greatest burden in the developing world because they are often responsible for hauling water to their homes. They spend an estimated 200 million hours collecting water every day. The average African woman walks six kilometres to haul 18kgs of water each day. This daily grind saps her energy for other activities and robs her of the opportunity to spend this time with her family, or pursue school and income activities to improve their lives.

Girls who attend school until adolescence are more likely to drop out when they start menstruating unless their school has clean water, toilets, sanitary supplies and hygiene training. Helping young women to manage menstrual health is not just about providing appropriate facilities, but also includes addressing social norms.

At childbirth, lack of sanitation, clean water and proper hygiene contribute to high rates of disease and death among mothers and newborns in the developing world. World Vision is accelerating its push to bring clean water, toilets and hand-washing facilities to more health clinics to assure safer deliveries.

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Children stand by a solar panel that powers a drinking water decontamination system in the Langar district in Afghanistan.

Children stand by a solar panel that powers a drinking water decontamination system in the Langar district in Afghanistan. Before World Vision installed the system, they had to walk 30 minutes to reach a dangerously contaminated water source.

How much does it cost to bring clean water to one person?

Our average cost for World Vision to bring clean water to one person in Africa is $50. But this price actually includes much more than just clean water. It also includes the costs involved to ensure that a well or water point is maintained so it will last for generations.

Moreover, by leveraging other resources like child sponsorship and local funds, each person who benefits from clean water is also trained and equipped to practise safe sanitation and hygiene.

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What is World Vision’s 2030 goal for its water program to help overcome the global water crisis? Is it achievable?

World Vision’s goal is that by 2030 all communities located within our development areas worldwide will have access to safe water (defined as a 30-minute or less round-trip walk to the water source), adequate sanitation, hand-washing facilities and menstrual hygiene facilities, as well as hygiene promotion and behaviour change.

The global WASH program will specifically promote the inclusion of the most vulnerable men, women and children. It will ensure that people with disabilities, those affected by HIV and AIDS, and other vulnerable groups in each area are actively included and benefit from hygiene messaging and increased access to sustainable safe water and improved sanitation.

Based on our achievements over the last five years (we reached more than 14 million people with clean water), we believe that our strategic partnerships with local governments, communities and other humanitarian organisations will help us collectively achieve this goal.