High-Level Political Forum Goals in Focus

Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all


Safe drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights. Access to fresh water, in sufficient quantity and quality, is also a prerequisite to achieving many dimensions of sustainable development, including health, food security and poverty reduction. Water-related ecosystems are essential to life and have always provided natural sites for human settlements, bringing benefits such as transportation, natural purification, irrigation, flood protection and habitats for biodiversity. However, population growth, agricultural intensification, urbanization and industrial production are beginning to overwhelm and undermine nature’s ability to fulfil key functions and provide key services. The challenges of meeting future water needs in a sustainable manner are daunting, but they can be overcome. The implementation of integrated water resources management at all levels (including the transboundary level) and mainstreaming water and sanitation into the policies and plans of other sectors are critical.


Photo Credit : © UNICEF/Olivier Asselin


A majority of the world's population still lack safe sanitation, and 3 in 10 lack safe drinking water


In 2015, 5.2 billion people (71 per cent of the global population) used safely managed drinking water services—that is, an improved water source located on premises, available when needed and free from contamination. An additional 1.3 billion people (17 per cent of the population) used a basic drinking water service—an improved water source not more than 30 minutes away. This means that 844 million people still lacked even a basic level of service.

Based on estimates from 84 countries in 2015, 39 per cent of the global population used safely managed sanitation services—basic facilities that safely dispose of human waste. An additional 29 per cent of the global population used a basic sanitation service—an improved facility that is not shared. That year, 2.3 billion people lacked even a basic level of service, and 892 million people continued to practise open defecation. Only 27 per cent of the population in least developed countries had basic handwashing facilities.





Conflict, violence and instability are curtailing progress on water and sanitation

Conflict, violence and instability can derail progress towards universal access to basic water and sanitation services. Using the World Bank’s harmonized classification of fragile states, an estimated 484 million people worldwide lived in fragile situations in 2015. Of these, 284 million people lacked basic sanitation services and 183 million lacked basic drinking water services. Globally, people living in fragile states are twice as likely to lack basic sanitation and about four times as likely to lack basic drinking water services as populations in non-fragile situations, with significant differences observed across all regions.

Proportion of the population using basic water and basic sanitation services in fragile and non-fragile states, 2015 (percentage)


Note: Oceania* refers to Oceania excluding Australia and New Zealand.


Accelerated progress is needed in more than 40 countries to end open defecation by 2030

Between 2000 and 2015, the proportion of the global population practising open defecation declined from 20 per cent to 12 per cent. However, faster progress will be needed to end the practice by 2030. Among the 62 countries where at least 5 per cent of the population practised open defecation in 2015, 18 countries are currently on track to meet the 2030 target. In another 36 countries, the current rate of progress is too slow to reach the target. For the remaining eight countries, open defecation rates have actually increased since 2000.



Untreated household wastewater poses a risk to both public health and the environment


Untreated wastewater from households degrades overall water quality, posing a risk to public health. It can contaminate drinking water sources and limit opportunities for safe and productive reuse of water. Preliminary estimates from household data in 79 mostly high- and high-middle-income countries (excluding much of Africa and Asia) show that, in 22 countries, less than 50 per cent of all household wastewater flows are safely treated. Of the 59 per cent of wastewater flows that are treated, 76 per cent are households with a sewer connection, and 18 per cent are treated through an on-site facility, such as a septic tank.


Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater sources, around 2014 (percentage)

Note: Oceania* refers to Oceania excluding Australia and New Zealand.

Western Asia and Northern Africa are hardest hit by water stress, indicating the strong probability of future water scarcity

In 22 countries (mostly in Northern Africa and Western Asia and in Central and Southern Asia), water stress—defined as the ratio of freshwater withdrawn to total renewable freshwater resources—is above 70 per cent. This indicates a strong probability of future water scarcity. In 15 of these countries, withdrawals totalled more than 100 per cent of the renewable freshwater resources in the country. Such challenges are typically addressed by making use of non-conventional water resources, such as reused wastewater, desalinized water, and drainage water used directly for agriculture. Efforts in countries most affected by water stress need to focus on increasing water use productivity and efficiency through these and other methods.



Redoubled efforts are needed in most countries to better manage their water resources

Implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) supports the use of water in a way that balances the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. In 2017, 157 countries reported average IWRM implementation of 48 per cent, with scores ranging from 10 per cent to 100 per cent. Despite regional differences, each region contains examples of countries with relatively high implementation, showing that the level of development is not necessarily a barrier to implementation. A comparison of surveys conducted in 2007 and 2011 on the implementation of IWRM indicates that modest progress is being made towards the target. However, based on experiences from the field, high rates of implementation typically take at least a decade to be achieved. Most countries need to accelerate current progress to come close to the target by 2030, particularly regarding financing for water resources management.



Cooperation among countries sharing rivers, lakes and aquifers needs to accelerate

A total of 286 transboundary river and lake basins and 592 transboundary aquifers are shared by 153 countries. This reliance on transboundary waters creates interdependencies among countries on political, environmental, economic and security issues, and makes cooperation a necessity. In 2017, based on data from 62 out of 153 countries sharing transboundary waters, the average percentage of national transboundary basin area covered by an operational arrangement was 59 per cent. High levels of cooperation exist across Europe and Northern America and for many major river and lake basins in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, the types of cooperative arrangements vary greatly in terms of their scope, function and form. Most arrangements cover rivers and lakes, but are rarely dedicated to aquifers. It is encouraging that steps are being taken to revise outdated arrangements, strengthen existing forms of cooperation, and negotiate new cooperative agreements. However, a significant effort is needed to ensure that, where appropriate, transboundary basins across the world are covered by operational arrangements.



Lack of abundant surface water in the poorest countries heightens their vulnerability to climate change and water scarcity

Water-related ecosystems are home to diverse plant and animal species, and the source of many sustainable goods and services, including food and water for drinking, energy, agriculture and recreation. Regional trend data show that the extent of surface water increased in some regions from 2001 to 2015. However, this is likely to be largely the result of new reservoir construction, flood irrigation and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change. Globally, slightly more than 2 per cent of land is covered by freshwater bodies, but they are unevenly distributed across countries. Europe and Northern America have almost 4 per cent of their total land covered by freshwater bodies, while coverage in least developed countries and small island developing States is only around 1 per cent. Although landlocked developing countries have a higher proportion of water bodies, this share has declined over the last decade.

Annual water sector ODA disbursements, 2000-2015 (billions of constant 2015 US dollars) and water sector ODA as a percentage of total ODA disbursements, 2000-2015 (percentage)

Note: Oceania* refers to Oceania excluding Australia and New Zealand.


Funding commitments to the water sector dropped by more than 25 per cent from 2012 to 2016

Ensuring water and sanitation for all will require financial resources and technical capacity to support and sustain needed investments in capital infrastructure. While total official development assistance (ODA) committed and disbursed across all sectors steadily increased between 2012 and 2016, the share of ODA commitments to waterrelated activities declined. Such activities include drinking water supply, sanitation and hygiene, agricultural water resources, flood protection and hydroelectric power. Between 2012 and 2016, commitments to the water sector decreased from a peak of $12 billion to $9 billion; however disbursements to water-related activities increased from $7.4 billion to $9 billion. As commitments fall, disbursements may also get smaller in the future. Furthermore, any reduction in external aid is likely to hamper progress towards Goal 6: a 2017 survey found that over 80 per cent of countries reported insufficient financing to meet national water, sanitation and hygiene targets.



Over half of countries have policies or procedures for the participation of women in rural water supply

Policies and procedures for participation by local governments in the management of water and sanitation can help ensure that communities are informed, consulted and represented in the delivery of these vital services. Data for 110 countries from two surveys—in 2014 and 2017— show that 85 per cent of countries reported that they have policies or procedures in place for the participation of local communities in the management of rural water supply, 81 per cent have the same for rural sanitation, and 79 per cent for urban water supply and sanitation. The role of women’s participation is increasingly important as a measure of equity. Among the 84 countries participating in the 2017 survey, the number of countries that had policies specifically mentioning women’s participation is higher for rural communities than for urban areas.

Annual water sector ODA disbursements, 2000-2015 (billions of constant 2015 US dollars) and water sector ODA as a percentage of total ODA disbursements, 2000-2015 (percentage)