Residents fill their containers with drinking water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi, India, June 26, 2018.
Residents fill their containers with drinking water from a municipal tanker in New Delhi, India, June 26, 2018.

PARIS - A new study — the United Nations World Water Development Report — finds that investing in clean water and sanitation is an economic and social winner, but billions of the world's poorest people still lack access to these key services.

Access to safe, affordable and reliable water and sanitation is considered a basic human right, and one of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals governments have pledged to realize by 2030. But there's a big gap right now between promises and reality.

Children wash their heads with rain water in the v
Children wash their heads with rain water in the village of Kobo, one of the drought stricken areas of Oromia region in Ethiopia, April 28, 2016.

Poverty a common thread

The latest U.N. World Water Development Report finds myriad groups, including women and sometimes the elderly, can be excluded from what many of us consider basic services. Most have one thing in common: poverty.

"Water has not been given the priority in terms of development policy that it should be,” said Richard Connor, the report’s editor-in-chief. “If you look at electrification for instance, energy is seen as big business, something controlled by the private sector.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of government leaders, they're thinking taps and toilets, and they're not seeing the truer, broader picture,” Connor said.

Connor said the bigger picture is that investing in water and sanitation can bring big returns for governments, for example, in health care expenses that are avoided because people are less sick. And it helps people get out of poverty.

But for many of the world's poorest, those investments are elusive. The report zeros in on three broad population groups — the urban and rural poor, as well as refugees and internally displaced people. 

“In sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 60 percent of the urban population lives in slums,” Connor said. “And for the most part, they don't have access to proper water and sanitation services. They can pay from 10 to 20 times more for their water than their affluent neighbors.”

?Under the radar

Connor said the urban poor fall under the radar because they often don't pay taxes and aren't counted in official records. But the study finds millions of rural poor, including smallholder farmers, also cannot access these basic services — including crucial water supplies during planting and droughts.

“We've discovered that if the small farmholders have access to water for supplemental irrigation, their crop yields will increase by two-to-three-fold,” Connor said.

The third group — refugees and internally displaced people — are also considered among the world's most vulnerable. But sometimes the presence of international aid means they can have better access to decent water and sanitation than the host communities. In both cases, however, the report finds these inequalities create tensions.

Connor said progress is being made in ensuring decent water and sanitation become accessible to everyone. But the report's overall message is, it's not enough.

Syrian refugees collect water at the Al-Zaatari re
Syrian refugees collect water at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria, Aug. 18, 2016.