Freshwater: In Society

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Freshwater resources have major environmental and economic importance to the world. Their distribution varies widely among and within countries. In arid regions, freshwater resources may at times be limited due to demand for water being met only by consumption exceeding levels of sustainable use.

Freshwater abstractions, particularly for public water supplies, irrigation, industrial processes and cooling of electric power plants, exert a major pressure on water resources, with significant implications for the quantity and quality of water resources. Main concerns relate to the inefficient use of water and to its environmental and socio-economic consequences: low river flows, water shortages, salinisation of freshwater bodies in coastal areas, human health problems, loss of wetlands, desertification and reduced food production.

Related definition: Water abstractions refer to freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources, either permanently or temporarily, and moved to the place of use. If the water is returned to a surface water source, abstraction of the same water by the downstream user is counted again in compiling total abstractions.

Mine water and drainage water are included. Water used for the generation of hydroelectricity is excluded.

(OECD Factbook 2008)

Water scarcity

The OECD predicts that based on current trends, 2 billion people worldwide are affected by water stress[1]. Over 90% of people worldwide currently use improved drinking water sources, an increase from 86% levels in 2000, however large disparities regarding access still exist among and within countries. This particularly applies to those in marginalised and vulnerable communities. More than 40% of all people globally who lack access to drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.[2]

Progress towards access to safe drinking water

Included in the Millennium Development Goals was the aim to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation by 2015. According to MDG evaluation reports, the goals were met are far as access to improves sources of water five years ahead of schedule, so between 1990 and 2015, 2.6 billion gained access.

The new Sustainable Development Goals set new targets to improve water quality and sanitation by 2030 such as:

  • Elimination of dumping
  • Halving the proportion of untreated wastewater
  • End open defecation

Women and water

Key facts

The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report highlighted the central role of women in collecting water for their families and communities in many countries of the world, as well as the vulnerability they face due to intensified competition for water as climate change threatens supply. Here are some of the key messages from the report:

  • Women and girls’ burden of collecting work means they have less time for other activities, including education.
  • Rural women are especially disadvantaged, since their task of collecting water implies walking long distances several times per day. For example in countries like Mozambique, Senegal or eastern Uganda, women spend on average 15–17 hours a week collecting water. In the dry season, sometimes women have to walk over 10 kilometres.
  • Paradoxically, women tend to attach more importance to sanitation than men, however their priorities have less weight in household budgeting.
  • Likewise, women’s lack of access to land means that they are excluded from managing irrigation systems.
  • Serious work needs to be done to increase women’s voice in decision-making – including decisions relating to water management.

Further reading on gender and water:

Many studies on women and water have been released in recent years – see the page on the International Decade for Action – Water for Life, 2005-2015. This page includes, among others:

Children and Water

Key Facts

The accessibility of children and youth to safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation is vital for their survival and development. Undernourished poor children are disproportionately affected compared to more well off children as diarrhea is four times more likely to be fatal due to complications associated with drinking unclean water such as chronic diarrhea and worms which stunt their physical and cognitive development.[3] The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report notes that in consequence of unclean water and poor sanitation, every year approximately 1.8 million children die of diarrhea and other diseases.

Unclean water and poor sanitation are the world’s second biggest killer of children. In 2004 deaths from diarrhea were an estimated six times greater than the annual average number of deaths in armed conflict for the 1990’s and approximately 443 million school days are lost each year from water-related illness.Despite a burgeoning global population, these deaths have come down significantly over the last decade, from 1.2 million per year in 2000 to about 760,000 a year in 2011. UNICEF says that is still too many.[2]


A significant amount of children’s time and energy is devoted to collecting water on a daily basis. An analysis of data from 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, representing 48 per cent of the region’s population, estimates that children spend a combined total of 4 million hours each day collecting drinking water.[6].

The burden placed on children’s time in the collection of water, and illnesses suffered due to limited access to clean water, also risks lost educational opportunities [7], contributing to poverty and ineffienct outcomes/occupations to sustain life in adulthood. [8]

Access to clean water and sanitation are prerequisites for the achievement of other Sustainable Development Goals including SDG 3 (good health and well-being), 5 (gender equality), 9 (industry, innovation, infrastructure), 12 (responsible consumption), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), and 15, (life on land).

Other Studies


Knowledge dispersion regarding our water footprint:

  • French photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand releases a new documentary on water: “La soif du monde” (video below in French)

On World Water Day 2012, the film was shown on French national TV and in some 60 countries around the world. The film was shot in approximately 20 countries and mixes spectacular shots of freshwater seen from above in countries like South Sudan or the north of Congo with the harsh reality on the ground: how to get water, and good quality water. The film brings forward the challenges but also some of the solutions – and aims to raise awareness on the scarcity of water, by throwing some surprising facts, like:

  • 40 litres of water are needed to grow 1 salad
  • 185 litres for 1 kilo of tomatoes
  • 3400 litres for 1 kilo of rice
  • 11000 litres for 1 jean

This makes all this “virtual water” just as important when we talk about water…

EmbedVideo was given an illegal value for the alignment parameter “200”. Valid values are “right”, “left”, “center”, or “auto”.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria says water is a precious resource and must be priced accordingly.

Forthcoming OECD publications on water

The scope of the current work programme has been broadened to address issues of multi-level governance in the water sector, in addition to continued analysis of the financing aspects of water management and the issues emanating from the agricultural sector’s impact on water. A number of major reports were released in the first half of 2011 to expand the information base and provide governments with policy guidance in critical areas. These reports include:

  • Financing Integrated Water Resources Management. This report reviews how governments are addressing the funding challenges inherent in taking a holistic, integrated perspective on water management.[10]
  • Policy Coherence Between Water, Energy and Agriculture. The policy linkages between these three key areas are becoming increasingly important and this report analyses how governments can ensure that the policies governing each are mutually supportive rather than divisive.
  • Water Governance in OECD Countries: From Theory to Implementation[11]. The report addresses governance obstacles undermining the efficient, coherent and sustainable implementation of water policies. It provides an institutional map of the allocation of roles and responsibilities at central and sub-national levels in a series of OECD countries, it identifies the major multilevel governance challenges linked to coordination and capacity within public actors in charge of water policy, and it reviews existing governance instruments to meet them.
  • Water Quality in the Agriculture Sector[12]. This report follows an earlier report on water quantity and agriculture and addresses the issue of how to mitigate the impact of the agriculture sector on water quality, especially with respect to diffuse source pollution from agriculture.
  • The Benefits of Water Supply and Sanitation Services[13]. This report provides an economic analysis of the benefits that are derived from the provision of water supply and sanitation services.
  • Synthesis Report on Water Supply and Sanitation. This report provides policy guidance on the financing of water and sanitation, as well as insights into how major OECD tools have been used as well as the lessons learnt from their implementation. This includes information on the implementation of the Checklist for Public Action in Russia, Egypt and Lebanon, the use of OECD’s strategic financial planning methodology, and a range of other tools.
  • Summary Report of an OECD Workshop on Water Information for Policy Makers[14]. The OECD Workshop (held in Zaragoza, Spain, March 2010) considered the information needed to assist and improve policy decision making across the water sector.


Work being undertaken in 2011-12

The OECD work on water will continue in 2011-12 and expand into a number of key areas of current and emerging policy priority. These areas include:

  • The Economics and Governance of Water Security – A major initiative to highlight the challenges of, and policy responses to ensuring water security for all in terms of both the quality and quantity of water.
  • Water and Green Growth – Water plays a key role in supporting a shift towards a green growth framework based on achieving economic growth while increasing resource efficiency and shifting to a low carbon society.
  • Water and Climate Change – Adaptation to climate change is mainly about better water management and this project will focus on the economic and governance issues in linkages between water and climate change adaptation, including consideration of the agriculture sector.
  • The Outlook for Water – Water is one of the four “red light” environmental issues that forms the focus of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050.[15]

The OECD held a Global Forum on the Environment focusing on Water, on 25-26 October 2011, which brought together representatives from governments, business, NGOs and academia, from both OECD and non-OECD countries, to address key issues in the water sector. The OECD will also contribute to new findings and lessons learnt over the years to the World Water Forum of March 2012.


Environmental progress blogs

Further reading and relevant studies

See also


  1. [1] Sustainable Development Goals Report 2016
  2. World water day: which countries have improved access to safe drinking water?, The Guardian, retrieved 23.03.2012
  3. DfID Sanitation Policy Background Paper
  4. 2006 UNDP Human Development Report
  5. Safe water remains scarce in Somalia, contributing to disease and malnutrition, UNICEF Newsline retrieved 29.03.2012
  6. Progress on drinking water and sanitation
  7. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
  8. Progress on drinking water and sanitation
  9. Progress for Children: A Report Card on Water and Sanitation Number 5, September 2006
  10. Financing Water Resources Management in France A Case Study for an OECD report
  11. Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multi-Level Approach
  12. Water Quality and Agriculture: Meeting the Policy Challenge
  13. Benefits of Investing in Water and Sanitation: An OECD Perspective
  14. Report on the OECD Workshop on Improving the Information Base to Better Guide Water Resource Management Decision Making, Zaragoza, Spain, 4-7 May, 2010
  15. OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction

Links [edit]

6th World Water Forum 2012

Women for Water Partnership

World Water Council

5th World Water Forum

OECD Water Statistics

WaterWiki. The fast-growing “knowledge map” and on-line collaboration platform for Water Practitioners

Columbia Water Center – The Earth Institute at Columbia University