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Globally, three billion people at health risk due to scarce data on water quality

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Tap water. PHOTO: Getty Images


Globally, over three billion people are at risk of disease because the water quality of their rivers, lakes and groundwater is unknown, due to a lack of data.

Besides, a fifth of the world’s river basins are experiencing dramatic fluctuations in water availability and 2.3 billion people are living in countries categorised as “water-stressed,” including 721 million in areas where the water situation is “critical,” according to recent research carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners.

Historically, there has been little data on the global state of freshwater ecosystems. To fill the gap, UNEP used Earth Observation technologies to track, over long time periods, the extent to which freshwater ecosystems are changing. Researchers surveyed more than 75,000 bodies of water in 89 countries and found that more than 40 per cent were severely polluted.

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The numbers, presented last week at a high-level UN meeting on the water-related goals of the 2030 agenda, suggest the world is falling behind on a global push to provide safe drinking water to all of humanity. UNEP’s data indicates that the world is not on track to achieve sustainable water management by 2030 and efforts would have to double over the next nine years to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – which calls for “the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

Coordinated by UN-Water, UNEP, along with seven other United Nations agencies, is part of the Integrated Monitoring Initiative, a global programme designed to support countries with monitoring and reporting progress towards the SDG 6 targets. UNEP is responsible for three of the 11 indicators – on ambient water quality, on integrated water resource management, and on freshwater ecosystems.

The data that UNEP has collected is now being analysed to track how environmental pressures such as climate change, urbanisation, and land use changes, among others, impact the world’s freshwater resources. Andersen said the information would help inform environmental decision-making at the highest levels.

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To speed up national action on water, the Sustainable Development Goal six acceleration Framework, was launched in 2020. It seeks to mobilize action across governments, civil society, the private sector and the United Nations to align efforts, optimize financing, and enhance capacity and governance to manage water resources.

Each year, the United Nations marks March 22, World Water Day World Water Day, to raise awareness of the critical role of water in food security, energy production, industry, and other facets of human, economic and social development. This year, the theme for the day is “valuing water.” Effective and equitable water management is recognised as having catalytic effects across the entire2030 Agenda.

“Our planet is facing a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. These crises are taking a heavy toll on oceans, rivers, seas and lakes,” said UNEP Executive Director, Inger Anderson. “Collecting regular, comprehensive and up-to-date data is vital to managing our water resources more sustainably and ensuring access to safe water for all.”

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