In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly canonized the human right to water and sanitation through a resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”1 That declaration stems from the simple fact that safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are crucial to human health and every other aspect of well-being. Clean drinking water mitigates diseases from diarrhea to cholera and improves household food preparation; irrigation improves crop yields and overall food security; and industrialization uses water as a basic input to the production of every good and service.
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Tremendous gains have been made in water security. From 2000 to 2020, about two billion people gained access to safely managed services, defined as accessible on-premises, available when needed, and free from contamination.2 Despite those gains, lack of access to affordable, clean, and adequate quantities of clean water remains a pervasive problem in many countries. In 2020, about 771 million people still lacked even a basic level of service, including 282 million who used a “limited” water service (improved source from which water collection exceeds 30 minutes), 367 million who used unimproved sources (an unprotected dug well or unprotected spring), and 122 million who still collected drinking water directly from rivers, lakes, and other surface water sources.3 The impacts of poor accessibility are disproportionately experienced by rural communities, and many live in sub-Saharan Africa and central and south Asia. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by unsafe and poorly managed WASH services.4
Energy is a key to ramping up access across the entire water supply chain. In rural India, for example, small stationary gasoline engines power machinery that lower and raise workers into wells that are hand-dug. More access to energy enables truck-mounted drilling rigs that burn diesel fuel to drill borehole wells that serve local communities. At the other end of the energy spectrum, massive quantities of fuel and electricity are used to construct reservoirs that serve millions of people.
When gravity cannot do the job, pumps powered by fuels or electricity are needed to move water from its source to points of end use, whether it be a kitchen, an irrigation ditch, or a factory. Access to electricity enables water to be purified prior to consumption at household to city scales. Electricity is also required to power anaerobic digesters, aerators, UV disinfectors pumps, and other equipment in wastewater treatment facilities. In parts of arid Africa, countries are turning to extremely electricity-intensive desalination to increase access to water in the face of water scarcity that is exacerbated by worsening drought.5
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The relationship between access to safe drinking water and energy use per capita flows the pattern of other indicators of well-being such as the Human Development Index [add link] and life expectancy [add link]. Countries in which a very low percentage of the population has access to clean water also have very low levels of energy use per capita. Play the animation and you will see that at low levels of energy use, very modest increases help drive significant increases in access to safe drinking water. But after about 50 GJ per capita, additional increases in energy use per capita are associated with smaller and smaller increases in rates of access to safe drinking water. Beyond about 100 GJ per capita there is little connection with access to clean water. To see this, compare the huge range of energy use for countries with rates of access above 95 percent. Per capita energy use in Canada is nearly four times that in Puerto Rico, but both countries have near universal access to safe drinking water.
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The enabling and enhancement of human life by access to clean water is clearly connected to access to energy. Reducing energy poverty and increasing access to electricity enables the deployment of the pumps, wells, pipes, plumbing, filters, and other infrastructure required to significantly increase water security. On the other hand, high energy, high consumption lifestyles are not required to meet basic water needs. In fact, they create a host of new water related problems such as groundwater depletion, pollution, and increasing conflict over water rights.
1 United Nations General Assembly, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 28 July 2010, 64/292. The human right to water and sanitation, Link.
2 UNICEF Data, Drinking water, July 2021, Link.
3 UNICEF Data, Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, 2000-2020: Five years into the SDGs, July 2021, Link.
4 Kayser GL, Rao N, Jose R, Raj A. Water, sanitation and hygiene: measuring gender equality and empowerment. Bull World Health Organ. 2019 Jun 1;97(6):438-440. http://dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT.18.223305
5 McBain, Will, Can desalination plants solve Africa’s water crisis? African Business, October 14, 2021 Link.