This global assessment released on the second day of the UN 2023
Water Conference provides a multidimensional comparison of the state of
water security affecting 7.8 billion people across 186 countries midway
into the Water Action Decade (2018-2028) and the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development. The report provides some very alarming
statistics, arguing that the world is far from achieving “clean water
and sanitation for all” known as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.
“Without water security, countries are simply incapable of supporting
freshwater ecosystems, livelihoods and human well-being,” said Dr.
Charlotte MacAlister, the report’s lead author and senior water security
researcher at the United Nations Institute of Water, Environment and
Health (UNU INWEH). “This global assessment highlights significant
development challenges that policy discussions should centre on in the
seven years left to fulfill SDG 6.”
Based on the assessment published by the UNU INWEH, known as the UN
Think Tank on Water, policymakers are mainly focused on water scarcity
mitigation around the globe. The authors argue that this reductionist
interpretation of water security has put the world off-track to meeting
SDG 6 by 2030.
To provide a more realistic understanding of the water security
status around the world, this UN report evaluated water security on 10
components or dimensions: drinking water, sanitation, good health, water
quality, water availability, water value, water governance, human
safety, economic safety, and water resource stability. The results are
worrying: 78% of the global population (6.1 billion people) presently
live in water-insecure countries.
UNU INWEH’s Director, Professor Kaveh Madani, noted the value of this
first global outlook of water security as “a major contribution” to the
UN 2023 Water Conference taking place from March 22-24 in New York.
“While not an easy undertaking, this research identifies where we should
target policy, funding, and action to accelerate progress, meet the
2030 Agenda and ensure that the most vulnerable and insecure are not
The global assessment’s key findings include:
- While all regions have countries with low levels of water security, Least
Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS),
in particular, face critical levels of water security due to a range of compounding factors. A total of 23 countries – 16 LDCs and 7 SIDS – are critically water-insecure:
the Solomon Islands, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Vanuatu, Afghanistan,
Djibouti, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Liberia, St Kitts &
Nevis, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, South Sudan, Micronesia, Niger,
Sierra Leone, Yemen, Chad, Comoros and Sri Lanka.
- In total, 33 countries from three geographic regions are water-secure.
Sweden is the most water-secure country, along with other European
countries include Denmark, Luxembourg, Austria, Norway, Switzerland,
Finland and Iceland, Ireland, France, Lithuania, Greece, Germany, the
UK, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Czechia,
Hungary, and Portugal. Water-secure countries in the Asia Pacific are
New Zealand, Cyprus, Australia, Japan, Israel, Kuwait, and Malaysia.
Canada and the USA are the only countries in the Americas to make it
into the water-secure group in the Americas.
- Abundant natural water availability does not necessarily ensure water security. Many
countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and the Americas with abundant
freshwater resources have high rates of WASH-attributed deaths due to
limited WASH access, poor water quality and water having low economic
value despite potentially high economic losses due to floods or
- Access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation is still a pipe dream for more than half the global population. More
than 70% (close to 5.5 billion) do not have safe water access, with
Africa having the lowest levels of access, at only 15% of the region’s
- Africa has the lowest levels of safe WASH services worldwide,
contributing to low levels of water security in the region. Almost 31%
(over 411 million) of people in the 54 African countries, including 33
LDCs and 6 SIDS, do not have access to a basic drinking water service.
Only 201 million people (15%) have access to safely managed drinking
water. In the case of sanitation services, 1.1 billion (82%) still live
without access to a safely managed sanitation service.
- Consequently, more people die from a lack of safe WASH services globally than those killed in water-related disasters.
And, alarmingly, this situation is not improving: 2019 saw increased
rates of WASH-attributed mortality in 164 countries compared to previous
2016 World Health Organization estimates.
- Comprehensive and accurate water quality assessment at the national level remains a challenge despite a dedicated SDG 6 target. The
level of domestic wastewater treatment, assessed by WHO using household
sanitation statistics, remains very poor (below 30%) in Africa and
large parts of the Asia-Pacific, and poor (below 50%) in most South
American countries, though there are exceptions in all regions.
- Water Use Efficiency does not always translate into water security.
Many national economies dominated by petroleum and mining activities
have a high economic value per unit of water used (100 USD/m3 or higher), but this does not necessarily result in increased water
security in other components such as water governance, WASH, or human
- Countries at risk of floods and droughts have compounded challenges that threaten their economic safety.
By region, Africa has the highest number of countries at high risk of
floods and droughts, while also experiencing accelerated population
growth, urbanization and industrialization. Coupled with poor
infrastructure and capacity to manage the impact of water-related
disasters, this further increases water insecurity.
- Impacts of climate change are not accounted for in water-related SDGs,
even though countries with high interannual freshwater variability
worldwide, experience less stable and reliable water availability. At
the same time, options to mitigate this variability through a range of
water storage options are poorly represented in global policy agendas.
- Monitoring progress towards the water SDGs is essential to targeting policy, funding and action. The
assessment highlighted the poor state of data availability on a number
of global water development indicators. Action must be taken by all
national governments to radically improve data collection, and
international agencies and UN data custodians have a duty and
responsibility to ensure this occurs.
Unless radical action is taken, this assessment indicates that
two-thirds of the world’s population will continue to live
water-insecure well beyond 2030.
* * * * *
The UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health is a member of
the United Nations University family of organizations. It is the UN
Think Tank on Water created by the UNU Governing Council in 1996.
UNU-INWEH is hosted by the Government of Canada and McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
– UN University, Institute for Water, Environment and Health–