The world population uses around 4,500 km3 of water a year, equivalent to just under 800 m3 per capita. 12% of water is used in the United States, where per capita consumption is nearly 2,000 m3 a year. About 40% of the total is used for agriculture and irrigation. In comparison, South Africa’s consumption is about 280 cubic metres per capita and 83% of this is for agriculture. The recognised universal so called “water poverty line” is 500 m3 per capita a year.
Various international bodies have calculated figures for access to safe water and sanitation. These are at best indicative and misleading if taken at face value. Whereas in Western Europe most access to safe water is to treated water (with primary, secondary or tertiary treatment) by pipe, in developing countries it may mean untreated water from standpipes, boreholes or water vendors in the streets. 90% of urban sewage in the developing world is discharged into rivers, lakes, and coastal water ways
without any treatment so very little water is safe to drink. Although much progress has been made in most regions of the world in the last twenty years in providing safe water and sanitation, there remain large gaps in the supply, notably in developing Asia and Africa, with major shortfalls in South and Central America. The World Health Organisation defines access to safe drinking water in urban areas as having piped water to a housing unit or a stand-pipe within 200 metres. In rural areas reasonable access means that a family member should not spend a disproportionate part of the day fetching water. Safe water includes treated surface water and untreated water from protected springs, boreholes and sanitary wells. All other sources are considered unsafe.
The provision of freshwater to the people has traditionally been subsidised by the governments of many of the world’s poor nations and in many cases is still seen as a social good or right. Subsidised water is usually a vote winner but often hinders efforts to conserve supplies and alleviate poverty. People living in poverty in underprivileged urban areas are often the losers in this situation. When suppliers are subsidised, the better off in a society benefit from cheap piped water supply while the underprivileged have to pay high prices to purchase from water vendors. Recent evidence suggests that this is not as clear cut as previously thought, with some private water vendors selling competitively priced water, especially in South America.