The Real Cost of Water

4 min read
Renalia, 5 (left), Graciana, 7 (middle), Nuemia, 6 (right), drinking water from a glass. Timor-Leste.
Image: WaterAid/ Vlad Sokhin

Tom Muller

Chief Executive, WaterAid Australia

For more than 700 million people globally, this is a daily reality. Water is more than just a life-sustaining resource; it’s the thread that weaves through the fabric of societies, influencing every aspect of our lives. 

Every person needs a sustainable supply of clean water: for drinking, washing, cooking and cleaning. It’s a human right. 

But in many countries, taps, wells and pipes delivering clean water simply don’t exist. Even where they do, water supply services are often not affordable or accessible, or aren’t designed to last. 

The cost of this is enormous. We’re not talking about monetary costs. Beyond money, lies the profound human cost of water.

As World Water Day approaches and the world continues to face a water crisis, we are shining a light on the real cost of water.

In many countries, the weight of collecting water falls disproportionately on women and girls. 

Globally, seven in ten women and adolescent girls are responsible for collecting water when it’s not at home. If everyone, everywhere had clean water close to home, between 2021 and 2040, it would free up more than 77 million working days for women each year.

These figures underscore the magnitude of the issue. It’s not only about the physical act of collecting water; it’s about the countless opportunities lost in the process.

The cost for women and girls permeates every aspect of their lives. Girls, robbed of precious hours that should be spent in classrooms, are forced to abandon their education. 

Women are stopped from pursuing income-generating opportunities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. The labour of women collecting water has a tangible impact on the entire socio-economic situation of societies.

Carla, 3, drinking water from a plastic cup in Timor-Leste
Carla, 3, drinking water from a plastic cup in Timor-Leste
Image: WaterAid/ Vlad Sokhin

Unsafe water keeps children out of school and falling behind on their education. 

In Papua New Guinea, 5.1 million people – half the population – don’t have clean water close to home.  In Timor-Leste, it’s 174,000 people– over one in ten – without clean water close to home.

Children in these contexts are forced to consume unsafe water, leading to illnesses from waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea. In Papua New Guinea, over 350 children under five die every year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water, poor toilets and no hygiene facilities. 

The consequence is not only the initial missed days at school; it's a sustained interruption in their education, a setback that goes beyond a single episode of illness. The relentless cycle of poor health stops these children from accessing their right to an education.

Our climate is changing at an alarming rate and it’s making it even harder for the world’s poorest people to get clean water. 

More frequent and extreme flooding is polluting fragile water sources; longer droughts are drying up springs. People need a reliable supply of water that keeps pumping through flood, drought and natural disasters. Because with clean water, they can stay disease-free, go to school, earn a living and be better prepared for whatever the future brings.

In countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mozambique, climate change is causing weather extremes, from prolonged droughts to flooding at different times of the year. That means people have to walk further to find water. Often the only water available is dirty, which makes people sick. Drought also means farmers’ crops are more likely to fail and cattle risk dying, so they have less produce to sell and families have less food to eat.

Malawi, Pakistan and Timor-Leste are some of the countries also increasingly affected by weather extremes like flooding and drought, and least prepared to adapt to the extremities. 

Floods can destroy people’s crops, toilets and homes. They can contaminate drinking water sources, damaging people’s livelihoods, their dignity, their safety and health.

So, what is to be done?

As we navigate the complexities of the global water and climate crisis, it is imperative to recognise the true cost of water - not in dollars but in the unseen labour of women, the missed opportunities for education, the compromised health of children, and the ever-accelerating impact of climate change as communities are impacted by too little or too much water. 

The good news is solutions are available, which we can implement if we all work together quickly. 

WaterAid believes addressing the real cost of water requires governments, businesses and communities to collaborate together to develop longer-term solutions to increase and protect access to water.

This means different things for different countries. 

For low- and middle-income country governments, locally-led adaptation measures need to be prioritised to support the most vulnerable communities in building their resilience to climate change, which requires their access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). 

This priority should be reflected in climate (adaptation) planning and budgeting. There is also a fundamental need to involve communities and ensure gender and social inclusive development approaches are central, so that the real cost of water is prioritised and not excluded. 

High-income countries (major emitters) must ensure that sufficient capacity and resources, including climate adaptation finance, are available for the poorest and marginalised communities to become and stay resilient to the challenges and uncertainties that climate change brings. 

The key to any solution though is fundamentally acknowledging the real cost of not having access to water. 

With 700 million people globally lacking clean water we need to commit to ambitious collaborative efforts that recognise the true cost of water poverty and drive a new agenda in a time of climate crisis.