Clean Drinking Water: UN Goal Met Five Years Early

In 2000, the United Nations Millennium Declaration vowed to reduce extreme poverty in the world by meeting a series of time-sensitive goals known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of those goals was to halve by 2015 the fraction of the world population that lacked sustainable access to safe drinking water in 1990. That fraction has been more than halved from an estimated 24 percent to 11 percent, and it was accomplished five years ahead of schedule! Nearly half of these gains were made in China and India.

Global locations of 783 million people without access to safe drinking water (based on data from the UNICEF/UN joint report)
Global locations of 783 million people without access to safe drinking water

According to a joint report by UNICEF and the United Nations, of the 783 million people still without safe drinking water, the majority live in countries that are not among the world’s poorest. More than 40 percent of the global population without access to safe drinking water lives in sub-Saharan Africa. The graph below illustrates where the roughly 11 percent of the world population without the benefit of safe drinking water reside. In the US, overall 99 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water; the remaining one percent reside in rural areas and include some Native American populations, which according to at least one account, may be approximately 10 percent underserved.

We Can’t Stop Now

The global public health gains achieved with respect to drinking water between 1990 and 2010 are laudable. Yet, there is much work left to be done. According to the UNICEF/UN joint report, given rapid population growth, it is estimated that over 780 million people could be without safe drinking water by 2015. That would represent essentially zero progress since 2010. In addition, while access to improved sources has increased, poor water quality means access to safe water has not been guaranteed and thus more monitoring and disinfection may be warranted. Intensive efforts are needed to keep pace and address the last segment of humanity without safe water.

Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council.

iActually called “improved” water sources, this denotes water sources protected from outside contamination by virtue of pipe delivery or protected well water, for example