Half of humans lack safe drinking water, while competition for water from agriculture and industry could put more people at risk in years to come, says a Portuguese lawyer who is the United Nations’ independent advocate for the right to water.

Catarina de Albuquerque, speaking ahead of World Water Day on Friday (22 March), said the official UN figure - 800 million – doesn’t provide a full picture of water poverty, estimating that some 3.5 billion people lack a safe supply.

“We know that not everybody who is getting water gets safe water,” de Albuquerque, the UN’s special rapporteur for the rights to water and sanitation, said by telephone from Lisbon.

“Many of the people I’ve met on fact-finding missions who have taps inside their houses, or who have wells next to their houses … much of this water is contaminated with human waste, because of industry, pesticide runoff, etc.,” she said when asked about the UN statistics. “So the figures are even worse than the ones that you mentioned.”

EU: The main donor

The European Union is the biggest funder of water and sanitation works in developing countries, providing an estimated €1.5 billion annually, and Brussels is calling for further support for water and sanitary toilets in global talks on a future anti-poverty framework.

A grassroots effort to declare water a fundamental right in Europe and exempt water supply and management from European Commission liberalisation policies recently became the first European Citizen Initiative to reach 1 million signatures.

De Albuquerque and six other UN rights advocates are also calling for governments to be cautious about using the market to deliver water.

The UN General Assembly recognised the right to water as a fundamental human right in 2010, giving ammunition for court challenges and international pressure.

“Increasingly, water is subject to allocation through market mechanisms, with the risk that the poor will be priced out,” the UN advocates said in a World Water Day statement.

“It is crucial to ensure cooperation between the competing users of water, to ensure that the human rights of all are realised and also that the most marginalised and vulnerable are not negatively affected by unequal resource allocation at every turn, by every decision on water resource allocation,” the statement said. 

MDG shortfall

Improving water and sanitation access formed one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which end in 2015. Despite steady improvements in water availability since 2000, the results from the UN paint a mixed picture:

  • Some 2.5 billion people have no sanitation facilities, with open defecation elevating the risk of disease and groundwater contamination;
  • Access to latrines changed little between 1990 and 2010 in sub-Saharan Africa and only marginally in South Asia, the world’s poorest regions;
  • Of the 800 million living in water poverty, 40% are in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Across sub-Saharan Africa, 61% of people have a ready access to water but only 30% have latrines, the lowest rates in the world.

“Obviously there has been progress, but I don’t see World Water Day is a day to celebrate,” de Albuquerque told EurActiv. “It’s more a day that forces us to think about much more we need to do.”

“It’s also an opportunity to influence the post-MDGs,” she said, adding that the future anti-poverty framework should “eliminate inequalities.”

Heavy burden on economy

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel Prize-winning president of Liberia, recently told a gathering that included EU and UN officials that bad water and sanitation take a heavy economic toll, breeding both disease and poverty.

The former bank executive and World Bank official estimated the global cost of poor water and sanitation in developing countries at $260 billion.

“All too often access to adequate sanitation in particular is seen as an outcome of development, rather than a driver of economic development and poverty reduction. South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated the potential for boosting economic development by addressing sanitation,” Sirleaf said in Monrovia at a UN meeting on the future of the MDGs.