World Statistics Day: Five key statistics on global access to water, sanitation and hygiene

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© UNICEF/UN0290924/Llaurado
© UNICEF/UN0290924/Llaurado

October 20, 2020 marked World Statistics Day (WSD), which is celebrated once every five years. This year, the theme was “connecting the world with data we can trust,” a topic which spans across several areas of international development. 

In honor of WSD, and with eyes set on achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) six – ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, this blog offers five key statistics on the global progress being made in achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). As well as updates on how the World Bank is helping centralize and disseminate water-related statistics through the Global Water Data Portal.  

The following estimates come from World Health Organization’s (WHO)/United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Joint-Monitoring Programme (JMP) 2019 report "Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene; 2000-2017": 

  • From 2000 to 2017, the population using at least basic water and sanitation services increased. The population using at least basic water facilities increased from 81 to 90 percentage points, and those using at least basic sanitation facilities increased from 56 to 74 percentage points.1  

  • During this time-period, the global population using safely managed water and sanitation services, the highest rung on the WASH service ladder, also improved. The population using safely managed sanitation services increased from 28 to 45 percentage points, and those using safely managed water services improved from 61 to 71 percentage points.2  

  • Likewise, during this time period, the urban-rural gap in access to services shrunk. The gap between urban and rural areas decreased from 47 to 32 percentage points in access to safely managed water, and from 14 to 5 percentage in access to safely managed sanitation.   

  • However, sharp urban-rural divides in access to WASH persist. In 2017, 80 percent of those lacking basic drinking water and 70 percent of those lacking basic sanitation services lived in rural areas. Moreover, open defecation was still practiced by 18% of the rural population, compared to only 1% of the urban population. 

  • Similarly, global access to handwashing and safely managed sanitation services remain low. In 2017, only 45 percent of the population had accesses to safely managed sanitation services, and only 60 percent of the population had access to handwashing facilities with soap and water at home.

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© UNICEF/UN0304111/Arcos
© UNICEF/UN0304111/Arcos

The current pandemic has elevated the need to expand access to clean WASH, especially given the growing evidence pointing to the relationship between a lack of access to clean sanitation, hygiene and the risks of acquiring SARS-CoV-2.3 The low-percentages of households with access to a handwashing station with water and soap at home are particularly worrying, as proper hygiene practices play a central role in helping contain the spread of COVID-19.4  

To expand access to up-to-date, ongoing and reliable WASH data, it is essential to: 

  • Establish periodical surveys of households, schools, health facilities and a broad range of water service providers to ensure governments and researchers have timely access to data. This includes expanding and better-integrating adequate WASH modules into household surveys, increasing the use of water-testing, and ensuring that the modules align with the indicators used to measure progress towards the 2030 SDG WASH agenda.  

  • Better systematize and increase the metrics tied to measuring the rural WASH sector, including expanding global access to the Sistema de Información de Agua y Saneamiento Rural (SIASAR).   

  • Focus on expanding impact evaluations within the sector to develop a more robust and rigorous evidence-base of what does and does not work. 

Given the Water Global Practice’s commitment to strengthening and expanding statistics at all levels of geographic granularity (globally, regionally, nationally and sub-nationally), it recently launched the Global Water Data portal, which is supported by the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership (GWSP). This is a one-stop shop for all water-related open data at the World Bank.  

The portal provides access to datasets and other key resources across three thematic pillars: sustaining water resources, delivering services and building resilience. The aim is for the initiative to help expand the data capacity of decision-makers and place evidence at the forefront of WASH policy initiatives moving forward.  

The low percentage of the population with access to safely managed sanitation and to a handwashing station on premises, as well as the enduring urban-rural divide in access to services are particularly worrying, and remain important areas of work, which should be prioritized within the WASH agenda moving forward. 

The WSD serves as a sharp reminder of the important role that access to current, ongoing and reliable data plays in helping countries better manage the current pandemic. It also points to the need for readily-available WASH statistics, to help pave the way toward achieving SDG goal 6. 


1 At least basic water includes access to improved water where a round trip to collect water takes 30 minutes or less, and at least basic sanitation services includes access to an unshared, improved sanitation facility. The universe of the population with access to least basic water and sanitation includes those with access to safely managed services.

2 Safely managed sanitation is defined as the use of an improved sanitation facility which is not shared with other. households and where excreta is safely disposed in situ or  excreta is transported and treated off-site. Safely managed water is defined as the use of an improved water facility, which is located on premises, available when needed, and free of fecal or priority chemical contamination.

recent article published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found evidence of SARS-Cov-2 in wastewater, shedding light on the association between improved sanitation and COVID-19. Similarly although the exact contribution of hand hygiene to the reduction in the spread of COVID is unknown, there is evidence that proper hygiene remains one of the first lines of defense against the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has consistently highlighted the role of proper handwashing in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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