What percentage of the world population does not have access to clean drinking water?

Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right and essential for good health and sanitation. Yet billions of people around the world lack access to safe water sources. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, 2.2 billion people globally do not have safely managed drinking water services. This means about 29% of the world’s population drinks water from unprotected sources such as open wells and springs that are vulnerable to contamination.

Key Facts and Figures

  • 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services
  • 4.2 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation services
  • 297,000 children under 5 die every year from diarrhea linked to unsafe water and sanitation
  • Women and girls spend 200 million hours collecting water every day

Regional Disparities in Access

There are significant regional disparities in access to clean drinking water. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest access, where only 24% of the population has basic drinking water services. In contrast, 94% of the population in Europe and Northern America has access to at least basic drinking water.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa faces the biggest challenge, with over 400 million people lacking even a basic drinking water service. This means they have to rely on surface water sources like rivers, dams, lakes and unprotected wells and springs. Only 24% of the region’s population has basic drinking water services, while just 18% has safely managed water.

Southern Asia

In Southern Asia, 95 million people lack basic drinking water and 295 million lack safely managed water. This region has seen improvement, with basic drinking water coverage rising from 84% to 92% from 2000 to 2017. However, safely managed drinking water increased slightly from 49% to 56%.

Eastern Asia and South-eastern Asia

Eastern Asia and South-eastern Asia have relatively high access to basic services, at 93% and 85% respectively. However, safely managed drinking only reaches 65% for Eastern Asia and 50% for South-eastern Asia.

Latin America and the Caribbean

About 93 million people lack basic drinking water in Latin America and the Caribbean. Coverage for basic services has increased from 85% to 94% from 2000 to 2017. Safely managed drinking water has also gone up from 58% to 74%.

Developed Regions – Europe, North America, Australia

Developed regions like Europe, Australia and North America enjoy near universal access to basic drinking water, at 99% to 100% coverage. At least 94% of the population also has access to safely managed drinking water. However, some rural and marginalized communities continue to lack access.

Global Progress

Globally, substantial progress has been made in increasing access to basic drinking water services. Coverage increased from 76% in 2000 to 89% in 2017. However, the increase in safely managed services is slower, only rising from 56% to 71% over the 17 years.

Why So Many Lack Access to Clean Water

There are several reasons why billions still lack access to clean drinking water:


Poverty is a major barrier to accessing clean water and sanitation services. In many developing countries, governments lack resources to invest in water infrastructure like piped supplies, sewage systems, water treatment plants and bore holes. Poor households also often cannot afford to pay water bills or connect to piped water.

Underinvestment in Water Infrastructure

Many developing countries chronically under invest in water supply infrastructure and operations and maintenance. This leads to broken down facilities. It is estimated the world needs to invest about $114 billion per year to provide universal access to safe drinking water.

Environmental Degradation

Pollution, climate change and extreme weather like droughts and floods destroy water sources and infrastructure like boreholes and treatment plants.Environmental degradation makes water access more unreliable.

Rapid Urbanization

The fast growth of cities has outpaced investment in water infrastructure in many developing countries. Unplanned urban settlements lack piped water connections. Cities also often overexploit local water sources.

Water Scarcity

Water scarcity makes access to clean water difficult in arid regions. Droughts also exacerbate water shortages. With climate change, water scarcity is projected to increase and affect over half the world’s population by 2050.

Conflict and Insecurity

Wars, violence and insecurity frequently disrupt water infrastructure and services, denying millions access to clean water. For example in Yemen, ongoing conflict has damaged water systems and left over 15 million without safe water.

Health and Social Impacts

Lack of access to clean water has severe health and social consequences:

Water-borne Diseases

Contaminated drinking water spreads diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery and polio. The WHO estimates over 500,000 diarrheal deaths each year are attributable to unsafe drinking water.

Stunting and Malnutrition

Poor water quality and sanitation contributes to malnutrition, stunting and impaired cognitive development in children.

Mortality Rates

Countries with limited access to clean water have higher child and maternal mortality rates from preventable water-related diseases.

Education Loss

Children, especially girls, spend hours collecting water, reducing time for school. This affects education, skills development and social advancement.


Water-related diseases and productivity losses trap vulnerable households in poverty. Time spent collecting water also reduces time for income-generating activities.

Gender Inequality

Women and girls bear primary responsibility for water collection and management of household sanitation and hygiene. This reinforces gender inequalities.

Solutions and Responses

Achieving universal access to safe drinking water requires acting on several fronts:

Increase Investments

Governments and development partners need to increase investments in equitable, sustainable water supply and sanitation infrastructure, especially in marginalized communities.

Support Operation and Maintenance

Built infrastructure requires adequate investment in operations, maintenance and capacity development to ensure sustained services.

Integrated Water Resources Management

Authorities need to manage water sources and supplies in integrated, sustainable ways to balance different uses and needs.

Technological Innovation

New technologies can help improve water access, safety and resource efficiency, for example mobile payment systems, remote sensors, solar-powered pumps.

Water Safety Planning

A risk-based approach to managing water safety from source to consumption can prevent contamination.

Water Conservation and Efficiency

Measures like rainwater harvesting, recycling, efficient irrigation, fixing leaks and consumer education help improve water access and availability.

Community Participation

Involve communities, especially women, children and other marginalized groups, in planning, management and oversight of water services.

Target Underserved Groups

Special measures should ensure equitable access for poor, rural and conflict-affected populations, indigenous communities, refugees etc.

Access to Clean Water is Improving Overall

While major challenges remain, access to basic drinking water is improving globally:

Year % with Basic Drinking Water
2000 76%
2010 86%
2017 89%

The UN Sustainable Development Goals include a target of achieving universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. With concerted action, this target is feasible although major efforts especially in Sub-Saharan Africa are still required.


In conclusion, about 29% of the global population, over 2 billion people, lack access to basic safe drinking water services. Sub-Saharan Africa faces the biggest deficit where only 24% have basic services. Underinvestment, poverty, conflict, climate change and weak governance constrain efforts to improve access. However, with increased financing, innovation, efficiency and targeting marginalized groups, the world can achieve universal access to end the suffering and lost potential caused by lack of clean water.

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