Why doesn't everyone have access to clean water yet?

6 min read
Mary gives clean drinking water to her son, Chileshe, in Kazungula District, Zambia. June 2022.
Image: WaterAid/Chileshe Chanda

Despite decades of projects, fundraising and technological inventions, millions of people still live without access to clean water. In this blog, we set out the barriers to achieving universal access, and how a systems strengthening approach can help overcome them. 

Since 2000, more than 2.3 billion people have gained access to clean water close to home, giving them more time for school, work, leisure and allowing them to lead more dignified, healthy and productive lives. WaterAid has played its part in this; since 1981, the year we were founded, we’ve directly reached 28.5 million people with clean water.

But despite progress, millions of people around the world are still denied the right to clean water. According to the latest figures, 703 million people – almost one in 10 – don't have clean water close to home. And for many people who do have access, the service may be unaffordable, unreliable, unsafe, or far away. At current rates of progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, two billion people will not have safe water at home by the target year of 2030. So why, despite decades of projects, fundraising and endless technological inventions for solving the water crisis, doesn’t everyone have access to clean water in 2024?

Shyamoli Munda collects water for washing at a nearby pond in Bhetkhali, Satkhira, Bangladesh. June 2023.
"The water I bathe in causes my skin to get very dry and I often get blisters," says Shyamoli Munda, seen here collecting water from a nearby pond in Bhetkhali, Bangladesh. She is one of the 703 million people worldwide who still don't have access to clean water. Image: WaterAid/ Fabeha Monir

The extent of the problem

If we imagine the whole process involved in getting water into homes, schools and healthcare facilities in more economically developed countries, we can start to appreciate the level of resource and investment needed to reach everyone with a universal, safe and sustainable water supply.

But in many of the countries where we work – many of which are among the 45 least developed countries – the permanent institutions responsible for delivering water supply services often do not have enough staff or money. They may also not have the data or information they need to adequately plan and budget for the construction of new water supplies, or the maintenance or repair of existing services. Deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, attitudes and gender norms can also mean that services fail to reach people who are marginalised or hardest to reach.

And despite limited resources, governments have to juggle many priorities that compete for investment, meaning that water and sanitation services are sometimes left behind. Governments may also struggle to deliver water supplies to everyone in places where GDP is low and the taxation system is weak. In these cases, it is often useful for other entities, such as the private sector, to play a role in providing water supplies, but there are often barriers to this, particularly in rural areas where achieving an economy of scale is more challenging without government oversight and regulation.

Constructing new water supplies can be difficult in many places because of extreme geographies, such as deserts, mountains and jungles. And while groundwater is often a good source of water, complex hydrogeology often means that groundwater is hard to find or expensive to develop.

What’s more, growing demands for water and the impacts of climate change can exacerbate these challenges in certain contexts. Very little infrastructure is invincible to the power of a cyclone, for example.

These challenges don’t just prevent the construction of new water supply services to meet the needs of the millions of people who are currently unserved, they also prevent the sustainability of existing water supply services. Money isn’t only needed to construct new services, but to keep them running. Services must be supported by trained technicians, and financial subsidies in some cases, but local government budgets are not always sufficient to cover these costs.

So, how will everyone have access to clean water?

Everyone will have access to a sustainable supply of clean water when there is a whole system of people and resources working together to get safe water to where it is needed, when it is needed. Such a system includes policy- and law-makers, urban and town planners, engineers and mechanics, chemists to monitor water quality, and water utility regulators and people answering phones when there is a problem or a customer complaint.

It's a complex system of skilled, accountable people, who have the necessary finance, data and sense of moral duty to meet the needs of everyone, as well as strong demand from users to play their role and hold governments and service providers to account.

We work to strengthen this complex system by:

  • Analysing the barriers to universal, safe and sustainable water supply. We work with local communities and institutions to understand the systemic barriers to achieving universal, safe and sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in a given context. For example, barriers that might exist at national levels e.g. in policies or laws; at sub-national levels e.g. in the budgets of local governments or the capacity of service providers; or barriers that appear at all levels e.g. gender and cultural norms. We also gather the evidence needed to tackle these systemic barriers through advocacy.
  • Working in partnership. We cannot tackle the barriers people face in accessing sustainable and safe WASH alone. We therefore work with:

    • local institutions and communities
    • local and national governments
    • civil society and non-governmental organisations
    • academic and research institutes
    • the private sector, and many more.

    To make our work as effective as possible, we also share best practice and the lessons we have learned with others, and bring different institutions together to increase their commitments to improving WASH.

  • Demonstrating models of service delivery and behaviour change that could be replicated by governments and other NGOs. We demonstrate how WASH services can be delivered to everyone and managed sustainably, meeting immediate needs while also demonstrating how they could be scaled elsewhere. We also support communities and local institutions to make their WASH facilities more resilient to climate change and improve water security and the management of water resources.
  • Strengthening institutions and providing training. We strengthen the skills and knowledge of service providers and local governments to fulfil their roles and responsibilities. We support local institutions to better plan, finance and monitor the performance of WASH services. And we strengthen the relationships between service providers and their consumers to make sure providers are responsive and accountable. We also promote the participation and leadership of women in decision-making around WASH.
  • Empowering communities. It is crucial that communities are empowered to demand improvements to their WASH services and feel accountable for their role in their ongoing management and sustainability. To support this, we aim to amplify the voices of local people, by empowering communities to access information about WASH, demand their human rights to water and sanitation, and acknowledge their part in ensuring services are sustainable.
  • Advocating and campaigning. We use all of these experiences and research to raise the profile of WASH in national, regional and global development spaces – such as the World Health Assembly and UN climate talks – and advocate for policy change, sector reform and improved financing for WASH.
  • Continuously learning and adapting. We regularly reflect on the progress we, and the sector, is making, the lessons we have learned and the changing context. We use this information to adapt and improve what we, and the wider sector, does.

Current levels of investment need to triple to ensure everyone in low and middle-income countries has clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene by 2030. And only when there are strong systems in place that can deliver, sustain and restore services after they have broken down, will everyone, everywhere have access to water. Getting there requires a collective effort and vision for change. Yes, infrastructure is important, but it is only part of the solution. Funding needs to be directed to other parts of the system to ensure that whatever progress is made, it is sustained long into the future.

Hannah Crichton-Smith is WaterAid's Senior Advisor – System Strengthening.

Top image: Mary gives clean drinking water to her son, Chileshe, in Kazungula District, Zambia. June 2022.