An Invisible Water Crisis? New Data Application Maps Hotspots of Global Water Quality and Their Evolution between 1992-2010


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People carrying clean water in Woukpokpoe village. Photo credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank
People carrying clean water in Woukpokpoe village. Photo credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank

Deteriorating water quality has emerged as a threat to global health, sustainability, and economic development. In 2015 alone, an estimated 1.8 million deaths were attributable to water pollution—which is more people than were killed in all combined wars and other forms of violence in that year—with highest rates of death in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia. And these numbers underestimate the true impact as they do not include deaths from chemical pollutants which often take years to manifest themselves, as well as illnesses that don’t lead to deaths, but result in missed days at work or school, lower household income, and a general lower quality of life.

It is for this reason that while much of the global attention around water resources focuses on water quantity largely, given intensifying levels of scarcity, droughts, and associated famines, the quality of water remains just as important and poses a growing challenge as countries industrialize, urbanize, and populations grow. Although not fully quantified, the impact of poor water quality on human development and the environment is likely to be very large. Given the importance of the issue, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 aims to ensure safely managed water and sanitation services, improve ambient water quality, and protect water-related ecosystems.

But what is the global state of water quality? Surprisingly, there is limited scientific consensus on this simple yet crucial policy question. We know that reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information is crucial for companies, investors and policymakers to make well informed decisions.  However, global water quality monitoring is both severely lacking and extremely complex given the multitude of parameters in play. Indeed, every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that in the U.S. alone, an additional 1,000 new pollutants are entering our environment.