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SDG 6 on water and sanitation is essential for sustainable development

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This is part of a series of blogs focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and data from the 2016 Edition of World Development Indicators.

Water and sanitation linked to many development factors

Despite halving the number of people worldwide without access to an improved water source over the past 25 years, the poorest countries are struggling to provide safe water and adequate sanitation to all their citizens in a sustainable manner. Just over a quarter of people in low-income countries had access to an improved sanitation facility, compared with just over half in lower middle-income countries in 2015. Delivery of water supply and sanitation is no longer just a challenge of service provision, but it is intrinsically linked with climate change, water resources management, water scarcity and water quality.

Access to safe water and adequate sanitation is a basic human right and underpins success in development areas such as agriculture, energy, disaster resilience, human heath, the environment, and ultimately economic growth. In many countries, economic and population growth, as well as urbanization, have increased water demand while supply has remained unchanged or even decreased due to climate change.

Sustainable Development Goal 6 recognizes that sustainably managing water goes beyond simply providing a safe water supply and sanitation (targets 6.1 and 6.2) to address the broader water context, such as water quality and wastewater management, water scarcity and use efficiency, water resources management, and the protection and restoration of water-related ecosystems.

Easing access to drinking water

In 2015, 91 percent of the world’s population had access to an improved water source, exceeding the Millennium Development Goal target of 88 percent. However, more than 660 million people still lack access to clean water , the majority of them in rural areas, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

More than $250 billion in Gross Domestic Product is lost every year in low- and middle-income countries because of inadequate water supply and sanitation services; at a country level this can be as much as 7 percent of GDP. Even for those who have access to water, service is often inadequate or unsustainable, and water from an improved source can still be unsafe to drink

Improving access to sanitation facilities

Only 68 percent of the world’s population has access to improved sanitation facilities , falling short of the Millennium Development Goal target of 77 percent.

Target 6.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals aims to ensure adequate sanitation for all and to end open defecation, which contaminates water and spreads diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery. Around 842,000 people a year die from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, or hygiene. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Seven out of ten people who lack access to safe and hygienic toilet facilities live in rural areas, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Additionally, the rapid pace of urbanization contributes to more than 700 million urban dwellers not having access to sanitation. An estimated 10 percent of urban waste water in low- and middle-income countries is treated and, as the amount of waste water increases, so does its impact on health.

Balancing water demand with available resources

Many countries face the threat of water scarcity, prompting calls for efficient water use (target 6.4). Demand for water continues to grow, while global per capita freshwater supplies have been nearly halved over the past 50 years. Concerns vary across countries and regions. Today, the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia are classified as water stressed-regions, with less than 1,700 cubic meters of water available per year per person.

Increasing water withdrawals for agriculture and energy generation will exacerbate competition for water use. The agricultural sector accounts for over 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. By 2050, feeding a planet of 9 billion people will require a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals.Similarly, the demand for energy generation, which is water intensive, is estimated to increase by 35 percent and water withdrawals for energy generation are projected to grow by 20 percent over the next two decades.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the situation, by increasing water stress in arid regions and increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events. In 2030 half the world’s population is projected to live in high water-stress regions. To sustain economic growth, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, and better manage water scarcity, many countries—including high-income countries—need to manage their water resources more effectively.

Increasing water withdrawals (as well as pollution) put increasing stress of freshwater systems and hence threaten the sustainability of the water resource itself and its value to humans and to ecosystems. Large infrastructure investments, especially in wealthy countries, have greatly reduced the threat to human water security (at least in terms of water quality). Much less investment has however been directed reducing threats to freshwater biodiversity. Achieving Target 6.6 – to protect and restore water-related ecosystems – will require substantial improvements in water resources management especially in developing countries as well as significant investments in both developed and developing nations. This is fundamental for protecting the resource base required to deliver safe and water for all.


Stephane Dahan

Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

Haruna Kashiwase

Consultant, Development Data Group, World Bank

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