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UNESCO Report Shows World's Most Vulnerable and Poor Paying More Than Rich for Clean Water

Ensuring broader access to drinking water and sanitation services requires "more holistic, integrated, and people-centered approaches to water resource management and environmental policy-making."

The 2019 edition of the World Water Development Report, entitled Leaving No One Behind, was published Tuesday by UNESCO. (Graphic: UNESCO)

Globally, those who are poor or marginalized because of their identities pay far more than the rich to acquire clean water.

That's according to the new World Water Development Report (WWDR 2019), which is published annually by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's World Water Assessment Program (UNESCO-WWAP). This year's report, entitled Leaving No One Behind, was unveiled Tuesday at an ongoing session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

Access to safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water and sanitation facilities such as toilets and showers are internationally recognized human rights.

But as the report lays out (pdf), "billions are being left behind" in their access to both, often due to factors such as gender, age, poverty, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, religion, socio-economic class, and geographic location.

With the world's population currently around 7.7 billion people, 2.1 billion lack consistent access to safe drinking water at home while 4.5 billion lack proper sanitation services.

WWDR 2019, Reuters reported, "explores how to help three groups in that category: families living in urban slums, smallholder farmers in rural areas, and people uprooted by conflicts and disasters."

Editor-in-chief Rick Connor of UNESCO said that in cities, rich homes with piped water tended to pay far less per liter, while the poor in slums often had to buy water from trucks, kiosks, and other vendors, shelling out 10 to 20 times more.

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"The misperception is that they don't have water because they can't afford it—and that is completely wrong," with some spending up to 30 percent of their salaries on water, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Refugees and internally displaced people "are among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, often faced with barriers to access basic water supply and sanitation services," according to the report, which notes that by the end of 2017, an "unprecedented" 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced.

"Half of the world's population with inadequate access to safe drinking water lives in Africa," reported German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. "More strikingly, only 24 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to safe drinking water."

By contrast, the majority of people in Central and Southern Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Northern America, and Europe have access to "safely managed" water.

In terms of sanitation, only 22 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean and 34 percent in Western Asia and Northern Africa have access to safely managed services. Sub-Saharan African and Oceania lack sufficient data to even produce estimates for that level, though respectively, only 28 percent and 36 percent have even "basic" sanitation coverage.

The majority of people in Eastern and Southeastern Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Europe have access to safe sanitation facilities.

After detailing the barriers to safe drinking water and sanitation and who is facing them, WWDR 2019 offers a path forward, emphasizing that "'leaving no one behind' is at the heart of the commitment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," adopted by world leaders at a U.N. summit in 2015.

"The human rights to water and sanitation are inextricably linked to the management of water resources and the environment as a whole," the report states. "The interlinked and interdependent nature of human rights and the call to 'leave no one behind' require more holistic, integrated, and people-centered approaches to water resource management and environmental policy-making."

Expanding access to drinking water and sanitation requires addressing exclusion and inequality "in both policy and practice," the report concludes. As part of that global effort, "those 'left behind' need appropriate representation in political and other decision-making processes, either directly or through civil society organizations with a clear mandate from those they represent."

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