Clean Water Access

First published in September 2019.

Access to improved water sources

What share of people have access to an improved water source?

Access to improved water sources is increasing across the world, rising from 76 percent of the global population in 1990 to 91 percent in 2015.

In the chart below we see levels of freshwater access across the world, measured as the percentage of the total population with access to improved water sources. The definition of an improved drinking water source includes “piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection).” Note that access to drinking water from an improved source does not ensure that the water is safe or adequate, as these characteristics are not tested at the time of survey. But improved drinking water technologies are more likely than those characterized as unimproved to provide safe drinking water and to prevent contact with human excreta.

In 2015, most nations had improved water access in greater than 90 percent of households. This marks significant progress since 1990 where most countries across Latin America, East and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa were often well below 90 percent. Access remains lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa where rates typically range from 40 to 80 percent of households.

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How many people don’t have access to an improved water source?

The chart below shows the total number of people with and without access to an improved water source from 1990 onwards. Note that these trends can be seen by countries and regions using the “change country” option.
In 1990, 1.26 billion people across the world did not have access to an improved drinking water source. By 2015, this had nearly halved to 666 million.

This improvement occurred despite strong population growth over this period. In 1990, 4 billion people had access to an improved water source; by 2015 this had increased to 6.7 billion. This means that over these 25 years the average increase of the number of people with access to improved drinking water was 107 million every year. These are on average 290,000 people who gained access to drinking water every single day.1

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Number of people without access to improved water sources by region

The chart below shows the total number of people without access to an improved water source by region from 1990. The regional breakdown of those without access has changed significantly over the past 25 years.

In 1990 nearly 42 percent of those without access were in East Asia & the Pacific. By 2015, this had fallen to 20 percent. In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa was host to 22 percent of those without water access in 1990; by 2015 this had increased to nearly half of the global total. In fact, the absolute number of people without access has fallen across all regions over this 25-year period with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to an improved water source has increased from 271 million to 326 million in 2015.

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Number of people without access to improved water sources by country

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Access to safe drinking water

What share of people have access to safe drinking water?

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How many people use safe drinking water?

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Drinking water coverage

Breakdown of drinking water coverage

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What determines levels of clean water access?

Access to improved water sources increases with income

The visualisation below shows the relationship between access to improved water sources versus gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. We see that there is a general link between income and freshwater access.

Typically most countries with greater than 90 percent of households with improved water have an average GDP per capita of more than $10,000-15,000. Those at lower incomes tend to have a larger share of the population without access. However, there are some notable exceptions: for example, more than half of Equatorial Guinea’s population lacks access to improved water despite having an GDP per capita above $27,000. In this case, the country’s wealth is highly concentrated; the mean GDP per capita is therefore far from the median GDP (i.e. there are high levels of inequality). Equatorial Guinea is one of the few remaining autocracies in the African continent. Its politics and governance therefore has a much stronger influence than average income.

Although income is an important determinant, the range of levels of access which occur across countries of similar prosperity further support the suggestion that there are other important governance and infrastructural factors which contribute. For example, Malawi has achieved a 90 percent access rate despite having a GDP per capita just over $1,000. Mozambique which has a similar income levels has just over 50 percent access. 

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Rural households often lag behind on water access

In addition to the large inequalities in water access between countries, there are can also be large differences within country. In the charts below we have plotted the share of the urban versus rural population with access to improved water sources and safely managed drinking water, respectively. Here we have also shown a line of parity; is a country lies along this line then access in rural and urban areas is equal.

Since nearly all points lie above this line, with very few exceptions — notably Palestine — access to improved water sources is greater in urban areas relative to rural populations. This may be partly attributed to an income effect; urbanization is a trend strongly related to economic growth.2

The infrastructural challenges of developing municipal water networks in rural areas is also likely to play an important role in lower access levels relative to urbanised populations.

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Definitions

Improved water source: “An improved drinking water source includes piped water on premises (piped household water connection located inside the user’s dwelling, plot or yard), and other improved drinking water sources (public taps or standpipes, tube wells or boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collection).”

Access to drinking water from an improved source does not ensure that the water is safe or adequate, as these characteristics are not tested at the time of survey. But improved drinking water technologies are more likely than those characterized as unimproved to provide safe drinking water and to prevent contact with human excreta. While information on access to an improved water source is widely used, it is extremely subjective, and such terms as safe, improved, adequate, and reasonable may have different meanings in different countries despite official WHO definitions. Even in high-income countries treated water may not always be safe to drink. Access to an improved water source is equated with connection to a supply system; it does not take into account variations in the quality and cost (broadly defined) of the service.” 3

Safely managed drinking water: “Safely managed drinking water” is defined as an “Improved source located on premises, available when needed, and free from microbiological and priority chemical contamination.”

‘Basic’ drinking water source: an “Improved source within 30 minutes round trip collection time.”

‘Limited’ drinking water source: “Improved source over 30 minutes round trip collection time.”

Unimproved’ drinking water source: “Unimproved source that does not protect against contamination.”

‘No service’: access to surface water only.

Data Sources

World Development Indicators – World Bank
  • Data: Access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, open defecation, water consumption by sector and related health indicators
  • Geographical coverage:  Global – by country and world region
  • Time span: 1990 onwards
  • Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme ( JMP ) for Water Supply and Sanitation
  • Data:Water and sanitation sources access
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country and world region
  • Time span: 2000 onwards
  • Available at: https://washdata.org/